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Written by: Michael Kukar
Written on: June 24th, 2014
Tags: aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, space, transportation, physics
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About the Author
Michael Kukar is an electrical engineering major at USC.
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Volume XVI Issue I > To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before: Faster-than-Light Travel in the 21st Century
Albert Einstein’s famous theory of relativity specified that the Universe had a speed limit for all masses. As a result, faster-than-light travel has always been seen as nothing more than science fiction. However, faster-than-light travel may not be so farfetched anymore. Engineers today are working to create the first usable ‘warp drive’, which would allow human beings to travel thousands of light years in the span of weeks or months. One might expect this implies we’ve figured out a way to be able to move faster than light itself, which seemingly contradicts Einstein’s theory. Shockingly though, the trick behind this feat lies not with creating a way to move faster to the location, but to move the location closer. This method requires digging deep into theoretical physics and making use of the very fabric of space and time. Should it be brought from theoretical to reality, the implications for space travel would be incalculable.
Albert Einstein’s famous theory of relativity specified that the Universe had a speed limit for all masses. As a result,
faster-than-light travel has always been seen as nothing more than science fiction. However, faster-than-light travel may not be so farfetched anymore. Engineers today are working to create the first usable ‘warp drive’, which would allow human beings to travel thousands of light years in the span of weeks or months. One might expect this implies we’ve figured out a way to be able to move faster than light itself, which seemingly contradicts Einstein’s theory. Shockingly though, the trick behind this feat lies not with creating a way to move faster to the location, but to move the location closer. This method requires digging deep into theoretical physics and making use of the very fabric of space and time. Should it be brought from theoretical to reality, the implications for space travel would be incalculable.

Introduction

For decades, novelists and scientists alike have imagined a futuristic world in which distant galaxies are only a few hours away. However, the whole idea of moving at the speeds to achieve that directly violates a number of physical laws. Star Trek, a 1966 science fiction show, illustrated this achievement through a device called a warp drive. Could the problem’s solution really be found in following a science fiction show?
The most fundamental of these aforementioned physical laws is Einstein’s theory of relativity, which set an ultimate speed limit for the universe [1]. Alpha Centauri, the next closest star after our own sun, is 24 trillion miles away. Even at light speed, such a trip would take generations. Todays’ theoretical physicists have, as a result, thought of intergalactic travel as something that will take at minimum years or decades, with technologies such as cryogenics being required to ever have man travel to a distant galaxy in a lifetime. The assumption behind these predictions involves trying to move with the highest attainable velocity and getting to the destination in a linear fashion. But as shows like Star Trek and other science fiction have suggested, what if we could just change the distance between our location and destination instead?

Alcubierre’s Metric

In 1994, the theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a mathematical model that would allow for faster-than-light travel [2]. This model was created to abide by Einstein’s field equations and general relativity, ensuring that it would not break the so-called “eleventh commandment” that “thou shalt not exceed the speed of light” [3]. Alcubierre thought that rather than traveling at a speed faster than light, why not instead contract the space between two objects, making travel appear to be faster than light, but in reality shorten the distance?
This is the essence of his proposal, which creates a contraction of space by creating a ripple in space-time in the shape of a bubble, as shown in figure 1 [2]. The center is where the traveling body would sit, which would travel at a normal speed under the speed of light, conforming to all the relativistic constraints placed upon it. However, in front of this warp sphere, space would contract (shown in fig. 1 as a deep crevasse on the right), reducing the distance. As a result, there is also an expansion of space behind the sphere (shown in Fig. 1 as a large peak). This crevasse and peak would ripple outwards in space, creating the wave on which the spacecraft would ride to its destination light years away. The spacecraft would literally ride the effects of manipulating the fabric of space.
Initially, this seems to contradict Einstein’s speed limit as the wave itself would have to be faster than the speed of light. However, this wave is a ripple in space-time, whereas Einstein’s universal speed limit applies only to space-time itself. Alcubierre essentially proposed a way to modify the very fabric of space-time in order to allow for faster-than-light travel.
Illumin
Figure 1: Space contraction
While the math behind his theory has been verified and remains sound to this day, a near-infinite level of negative energy would be required. Just the science behind such power would require a deep knowledge of theoretical physics. Due to both of these requirements, Alcubierre’s model has been thought to be impossible to achieve in reality until just as recently as a few years ago.