Will We Ever Travel Faster Than Light, a la Star Trek?

By Eliza Strickland | May 15, 2009 6:25 pm

EnterpriseJust because Albert Einstein said that the faster-than-light travel is impossible isn’t any reason to stop trying for it, a number of Star Trek-loving theoretical physicists have declared. To achieve the starship Enterprise‘s fabled warp speed, they propose simply bending the rules of physics a bit.

The speed-of-light speed limit, they argue, only applies within space-time (the continuum of three dimensions of space plus one of time that we live in). While any given object can’t travel faster than light speed within space-time, theory holds, perhaps space-time itself could travel. “The idea is that you take a chunk of space-time and move it,” said Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project. “The vehicle inside that bubble thinks that it’s not moving at all. It’s the space-time that’s moving” [SPACE.com].

But how do you move a bubble of space time around the universe? For an answer, researchers Gerald Cleaver expands on a theory first proposed in 1994 by Mexican physicist, Michael Alcubierre. It might be possible to expand space behind a vehicle, say the Enterprise, and shrink space in front of it, thereby creating a bubble that could move through Einstein’s space-time fabric at speeds much greater than the speed of light…. Cleaver, who earned his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, in the heart of surfing country, likens it to “surfing a wave” [ABC News].

The bubble, Cleaver says, could theoretically be created by manipulating dark energy, which was thought to play a role in the accelerating expansion of the universe. Says Cleaver: “In modern string theory, dark energy [also called the cosmological constant] is the energy stored in empty space, where pairs of matter and anti-matter particles are spontaneously created and annihilated…. When the cosmological constant is positive, dark energy is literally pushing space itself apart. When it is negative, then space is contracting. So by arranging the cosmological constant to be positive behind the ship and negative in front of the ship, it should be possible to travel distances that would ordinarily need faster-than-light speeds, even though the ship itself does not exceed the speed of light” [EETimes].

Got all that? Oh yes, and this may all be happening in the 11th dimension. And it would take a bit of an energy surge to get the space-time bubble going. Cleaver estimates that the amount of energy needed to influence the extra dimensions is equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter being converted into energy. “That is an enormous amount of energy,” Cleaver said. “We are still a very long ways off before we could create something to harness that type of energy” [Photonics Online].

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: BA Review: STAR TREK
Cosmic Variance: Rules for Time Travelers
DISCOVER: Score Another Win for Einstein

Image: Star Trek

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space
  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Pretty off topic here, but ya’ll should check out the Allosphere and blog on that.


    As if it weren’t crazy enough in it’s own right, the data they’re visualizing with it is some ground-breaking quantum science, the kind of thing you’re taught can’t happen in nature in Chem 1.


    (i couldn’t find an email contact so I just posted a comment)

  • Albert Bakker

    Well, if no mean ‘ol skeptical killjoy is going to burst the bubble, that would truly make warpdrives plausible. If they do, I’m going to look the other way. Cardassia here we come…

  • YouRang

    Surely bubble in spacetime is exactly what matter is. There is nothing here that suggests it is possible.
    OTOH such a mechanism is consistent with the searchlight effect. I.E. a projection from a distant source can pass by a spot at speeds greater than 1 already.
    OThirdHand a bubble is spacetime is also what the universe is. One would expect that creating a bubble in spacetime would create a new universe. I.E. Inflation would take over–driving the two sides of the bubble permanently apart and expanding at speed 1.

  • i make crop circles

    a bubble is a membrane with nothing (air/empty space) inside of it.

    this theory was originally known as a ‘membrane’ approach for an alternative form of space propulsion.

    the idea is that: since the speed of sound and light in water is slower than it is in air, the medium in which it is traveling in has an affected on its overall speed.

    maglev now does the opposite. where all modes of transportation eventually lose velocity through friction, magnets allow us to ‘ride the field’ and allows us to in fact go faster than we ever thought we could on land. and we did so by riding a field only 2-5cm off the ground.

    Membrane’ propulsion hoped to find a material that would allow us to ‘slide’ through space like a slippery bar of soap. This would have had the potential to magnify the strength of our propulsion by 100-1000 times.

    This article is more or less a progression and evolution of the same concept. the membrane here is negative energy in front of us (contracting and pulling), while behind us is positive energy pushing us away.

    I think your point is valid Albert, creating such a bubble would have that risk of pulling it apart.

    that is why i think their idea is great and only needs a little tinkering.

    the key is to have the front negative contraction in the front to pull us. that would be the only permanent ‘membrane’.

    the back end would have to be some sort of ‘propulsion-like’ system, whereby we utilize the dark matter in the vacuum and induce matter and antimatter annihilation in our wake like it was rocket fuel and this would be our push.

    we would be using a similar concept as maglev except with dark mater as the repulsive force. all this is very real and not all that far away from happening.

    i took the time to write this because i did not want people to see the picture of the enterprise and miss out on the true potential this theory has.

    the background of the underlying principle they proposed is not new. the new and difficult thing si understanding how to make, induce, and/or control matter and anti-matter annihilation.

    easy really

  • http://none oriostar33

    Its simple in principal. It all goes to E=MC2. So lets say you want to go across the room. You need to equal your energy to your move your @$$ across the room. O.o Now if you have a whole bunch of energy behind your mass, you can propel your ass across the galaxy at FTL speeds, quite effectively. 😉

  • http://sacrilicio.us madcap

    Getting out into the universe is half the problem. Getting back is the other.

    Due to the expansion of the universe, even if a ship traveled faster than light, if it went out far enough it would be expanding away from Earth at a speed that is itself faster than light, just by sitting still.

  • Albert Bakker

    That is true madcap, but somehow I get the impression that the tought that surf’s up for any bubble big enough to contain an entire observable universe may tickle the imagination of many, but is not going to make for happy trekkies.

  • amphiox

    mapcap: Not necessarily. Historically, many pioneers have ventured forth with little hope and even less intention of ever returning “home.”

    I’m more concerned with this “equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter being converted into energy” thing. That is a lot of energy to be having industrial accidents with. Considering that most of the early rocketry experiments blew up on the launch pad, one might want to make sure you’re far, far away from earth before attempting your first experiments with this principle. But then that begs the question of how you get out there where it’s safe to play in the first place.

  • http://www.kenstech.com Ken

    Or we could use Green Faeries to pull our space craft. I thought about using Red Faeries, but as everyone knows, Red Faeries just don’t have the acceleration potential that the Green Faeries do.

    Of course there are some practical problems with Green Faeries. For example, getting harnesses that small is a real problem. Also, Green Faeries are NOTORIOUSLY intractable and rounding up the requisite 483.4 (minimum) Green Faeries to pull a starship at 1g for 1 year (thus achieving light speed) seems like a gargantuan task right now. Research is being done however and I think that with the appropriate government grants these and other practical details can be worked out.


  • RevDrTom

    If FTL is not possible, the Universe itself is an absurdity. As extrasolar planets continue to appear everywhere we look, the likelihood of a vast number of habitable worlds becomes ever more apparent. An archapelago of habitable worlds, eternally separated from each other by an insurmountable gulf, would be unbearable for intelligent creatures. That we exist in a Cosmos which generated higher forms of intelligence suggests that commerce among intelligent species must be the eventual goal of evolution itself. Call it blind faith, but I believe we shall achieve FTL and take our place in the community of star nations which has likely existed for millions of years…

  • Albert Bakker

    Yes necessarily! Ignore for a moment the monstrous timescale involved and ignore that you have mass. If the distance between you and earth is big enough so that the expanding space between your spaceship and the planet makes the earth move away from you with the speed of light, that is where you cannot travel towards it and hope to ever reach it again. If you would travel with the speed of light towards it, the distance between you and earth would not decrease and if the expansion then still will be accelerating earth would still be moving away from you with an increasing speed.

    Don’t worry about safety-issues while turning Jupiter into pure energy in reality. These are reality-free math-induced hallucinations.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Most pioneers never returned home. They either lived where they settled or died along the way.

    It’s the ancestral human spirit – nah, f*** that, it’s the ancestral life spirit – if we didn’t seek to explore and live some place we hadn’t before, we wouldn’t be here arguing this right now.

    We will get to the stars, assuming we don’t die first – it’s the basic premise of life itself. The only question is time.

  • J.L. Odom

    thanks, articles like these help us Writers re-assure ourselves when we portray FTL travel in Science Fiction.

    I’m an optimist, I think at some point, we are going to see the discovery of a “Subspace” dimension allowing us to circumvent the whole problem, but this is blind faith on my part, and not very scientific of me.

    However one way that I think I’m realistic is I think the prediction that we won’t actually create a working warp drive for several millennia is exaggerate. If you look back on the history of human kind, you’ll see that the Scientific Modern Era has only existed for about 100 years (this being, in my mind, started with Planck & Tesla & the like in the very late 1800’s) and then the truly MODERN Era of Airplanes, and Internet, and TV, and heck, large networks of electricity, has only existed for 50 to 70 years.

    The fact that we are already figuring out this kind of technology at such a massive speed tells me that it is actually very rational that we will achieve full system Colonisation within this Millennia and possibly even Extra-Solar Exploration as well.

    After all, NASA plans on building the Shackleton Lunar Outpost by 2025, if we are lucky, we might possibly see the beginnings of Colonisation and Terraformation of Mars within our lifetimes, that is, if we don’t destroy civilisation with Environmental, Economical, and Political Meltdown.

  • Andrew

    Cannot travel faster than light because theory based on assumption that you cannot go faster than light. Incredible stupidity. Einstein – wrong. Maxwell – wrong. Newton is ok. 300 year step back to advance into the next century. It all goes back to the photon.

  • Yogurt

    “RevDrTom” needs to lay off the weed. “Andrew”, the whiny little twat needs to start smoking some.

  • Pieter

    FTL travel, why not? It is pretty stupid to believe that Einstein or any maths or physics master is always 100% correct, how many theories has been proven wrong over time.

    Look at where we were a mere 100 years ago, look at where we are now (technology spesific), look at how in the last 10 years there have been more technological advances than is the in the previous 100 years.

    We might not have to find a way to get around changing the physics that Einstein laid down to be the barrier, but rather we may find out that he was not completely accurate, which in turn might make FTL travel possible.

  • Mark

    The universe is expanding FASTER than the speed of light, therefore I conclude Einstein to be wrong. We will one day travel FTL.

  • Maxxer

    I’m just an average Joe and know very little on the subject; however, can anyone tell me if there has been any speculation of something that might already be traveling faster than c?

    We can’t see infrared but we know its there….nor can we see X-ray or ultraviolet but they exists nevertheless.

    Is there the possibility of something…anything…. already moving at such incredulous speeds that it is already hopping around the universe as easy as a bee goes from flower to flower?

    We’re so young in regards to time and knowledge; if something was covering galactic distances in nanoseconds, we wouldn’t know it if it sat on our lap and called us Mama!

    Will particle accelerators help reveal answers to speculation like this or am I way off course?

    Please don’t flame me…I’m not an Einstein….I’m just trying to learn things.

    Thanks in advance for any thoughts, theories, or feedback.

  • Neil H

    FTL travel will be possible at some stage of evolution.

    Hundreds of years ago we would never have believed we would be using cars, trains, planes, mobile phones etc.

    The age old thought here is, We can’t so we don’t. Some lateral thinkers have acheived the We Can So We Do.

    FTL travel will be accomplished by engines that use gravity to move through space and will create a bubble around the vessel so the occupants will not suffer when they move from one constant to another at a massive velocity.

  • paul


  • John

    The problem with FTL space travel in Einsteinian space is radiation. Radio active particles travel very fast and penetrate anything they bump into including human bodies. The faster you go the faster you encounter normal atoms in space such as hydrogen. If you go fast enough these particles go through you at the same speed. They aren’t moving but you are. As you approach the speed of light or maybe even only a fraction of it these particles can act the same as radioactive particles and kill any living tissue they penetrate.

    To go FTL we must look to ways of entering other demensions where Einsteins laws do not apply or apply differently. A demension that would allow us to travel huge distances with the low speed of todays technology would be ideal. Enter the demension then go X miles per hour or X% of the speed of light for a finite amount of time to cover a great distance in ralation to Einsteinian space then pop out of the demension into our own demension and there you are, somewhere maybe millions or billions of miles from where you started.

    Is that possible or am I all wet? 😉

  • Ziggz

    intense, but does this mean that the space the bubble left, doesn’t technically exist

  • http://www.enchantedchicks.com Sophie

    My New Year will be better knowing this!

  • http://www.divineadvancedhumanbeings.com divineadvancedhumanbeings.com

    Light does not travel… Light is a chemical reaction process and a bi-product of Universal Respiration…

    Many of the problems associated with determining how the universe was created relates to the measurement of light, which is used to measure our distance from other star systems. Current theory regarding the motion of light, supports the speed of light at 186,000 mps. This is highly theoretical! I would like to propose to you that light doesn’t move at all like contemporary science tells us. Light as opposed to particles (photons) moving through space, is a chain reaction associated with the motion of electrons and moves at the speed of frequency, which is almost instantaneous! Light is a chemical reaction which would occur at a slightly slower speed but nevertheless, almost instantaneous. In other words, the light which is used to measure whether a star is moving away from a center, is inaccurate as we are seeing this light in almost “real time”!

    To read article in its entirety, visit http://tinyurl.com/29uuqrp

  • http://www.eticaretsitesi.com.tr e ticaret

    nice blog nice post thanks

  • Scott Ryan

    Going faster then the speed of light.
    1 way faster then, second way close to.

    It’s called putting a magnetic field or a magnet in the centre of a space ship, then do split second blast of gauss hitting the magnetic field pulling it forward.

    so the magnet or magnetic fields are ether behind the blast of gauss, or up & under it. that stops it from destroying the points.

    The other way is by putting a magnetic or magnet on top of the space ship, then 1 out in front on a rail under the space ship at a different spot. they pull to each other, or 1 can pull to metal, & when a split second blast off gauss happens, it will push the ship forward every split second making it go faster & faster non stop.

    so you can also use a magnet instead of a magnetic field, if need be.
    German scientist made a 500,000 / 1 million gauss magnet. you can do ether of them on the space ships with magnetic field or a magnet on you photo wall.

    The other thing is a MRI scanner on the space ship that will spin around the metal balls making it suck away everything in front of it.

    if you can look at the photos, you will under stand it a lot better then my terrible writing.

    This is a photo of 1 way on facebook on SCI-FI SCIENCE: PHYSICS OF THE IMPOSSIBLE. its 1 of Michio Kaku pages where i posed some photos. you will have to like his page to look at the drawings.

    first 1

    second photo / way

    3rd photo that shows you how MRI & metal balls will takeaway everything.

  • Scott Ryan

    The idea of a periodic motion system between the magnetic field and the centripetal acceleration does pose an interesting mathematical problem, if you swap the magnetic field for an electric field.

    Centripetal and electric forces vary according to distance at different rates, however mathematically one can ask if there can be a system where the two balance out or more specifically oscillate as a result of the two forces.

  • http://gry-samochodowe-dla-dzieci.gry-ekonomiczne-online.dlugoleka.pl bajki disneya

    Spot on with this write-up, I really suppose this website wants far more consideration. I’ll probably be once more to read far more, thanks for that info.


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