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
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