For most of the attendees at the conference, advances in manned space exploration have been frustratingly slow in coming. Despite billions of dollars spent over the last few decades, space agencies aren't capable of much more than they were in the 1960s. They may be capable of less. 100 Year Starship intends to accelerate the process of interstellar travel by identifying and developing promising technologies.
Over the course of several days, attendees could join symposia on such exotic topics as organ regeneration and organized religion aboard a starship. One of the most anticipated presentations was titled "Warp Field Mechanics 102," given by Harold "Sonny" White of NASA. A nine-year agency veteran, White runs the advanced propulsion program at Johnson Space Center (JSC), down the road from the Hyatt. Along with five others, he recently co-authored the agency's 16-year "In-Space Propulsion Systems Roadmap," which outlines NASA's goals for the future of space travel. The plan calls for all manner of propulsion projects from improved chemical rockets to far-forward systems like antimatter and nuclear engines. White's particular area of research is perhaps the most far-forward of them all: warp drive.
Put plainly, warp drive would permit faster-than-light travel. It is, most assume, impossible, a clear violation of Einstein's theory of general relativity. White says otherwise. For half an hour at the symposium, he outlined the physics of a potential warp drive—walking attendees through things like Alcubierre bubbles and hyperspace oscillations. He explained how he'd recently computed theoretical results that could pave the way for an actual warp drive and that he was commencing physical tests in his NASA lab, which he calls Eagleworks.
It almost goes without saying that functional warp drive would have tremendous implications for space travel. It would free explorers not only from Earth's orbit, but from the entire solar system. Instead of taking 75,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri, the star system nearest to our own, warp-equipped astronauts, White says, could make the trip in two weeks.
In the wake of the shuttle program's termination and given the increasing role of private industry in low-Earth orbit flights, NASA has said it will refocus on far-flung, audacious exploration, reaching far beyond the rather provincial boundary of the moon. But it can only reach those goals if it develops new propulsion systems—the faster the better. A few days after the 100 Year Starship gathering, the head of NASA, Charles Bolden, echoed White's remarks. "One of these days, we want to get to warp speed," he said. "We want to go faster than the speed of light, and we don't want to stop at Mars."
Alcubierre envisioned a bubble in space. At the front of the bubble, space-time would contract, while behind the bubble, space-time would expand (somewhat like in the big bang). The deformations would push the craft along smoothly, as if it were surfing on a wave, despite the tumult around it. In principle, a warp bubble could move along arbitrarily quickly; the speed-of-light limitation of Einstein's theory applies only within space-time, not to distortions of space-time itself. Within the bubble, Alcubierre predicted that space-time would not change, leaving space travelers unharmed.
Einstein's equations of general relativity are very difficult to solve in one direction—figuring out how matter bends space—but going backward is fairly easy. Using them, Alcubierre determined the distribution of matter necessary to create such a warp bubble. The trouble was, the solutions called for an obscure form of matter called negative energy.
In the most basic of definitions, gravity is the attractive force between two objects. Every object, no matter how small, exerts some attractive force on surrounding matter. Einstein's insight was that this force is a curvature in space-time. Negative energy, though, is gravitationally repulsive. Instead of drawing space-time together, negative energy would push it apart. Roughly speaking, for his model to work, Alcubierre needed negative energy to expand the space-time behind a craft.
Though no one has ever measured negative energy, quantum mechanics predicts that it exists, and scientists should be able to create it in a lab. One way to generate it would be through the Casimir effect: Two parallel conducting plates, placed very closely together, should create small amounts of negative energy. Where Alcubierre's model broke down is that it required a vast amount of negative energy, orders of magnitude more than most scientists estimate could be produced.
White says he's found a way around that limitation. In a computer simulation, White varied the strength and geometry of a warp field. He determined that, in theory, he could produce a warp bubble using millions of times less negative energy than Alcubierre predicted and perhaps little enough that a space craft could carry the means of producing it. "The findings," he says, "change it from impractical to plausible."
White did not start his career in propulsion. He studied mechanical engineering, and he joined the agency in 2004 as part of its robotics group, having worked at JSC as a contractor since 2000. Eventually, he took command of the robot arm on the International Space Station while working on a Ph.D. in plasma physics. It was only in 2009 that he shifted his responsibility to propulsion, which had been a long-standing interest of his and the reason he came to work for NASA in the first place.
"Sonny is a pretty unique person," says his boss John Applewhite, who heads the Propulsion Systems Branch within the JSC engineering directorate. "He's definitely a visionary, but he's also an engineer. He can take his vision and turn it into a useful engineering product." About the time he joined Applewhite's group, White requested permission to open his own lab, dedicated to advanced propulsion. He dreamed up the name Eagleworks—a patriotic riff on the famous Lockheed Martin Skunk Works—and had NASA create a logo to his specifications. Then he got to work.
White leads me to his office, which he shares with a colleague who is looking for water on the moon and then takes me down the hall to Eagleworks. As we walk, he tells me about his quest to open the lab, which he frames as "a long arduous process of trying to find ways for advanced propulsion to help human space exploration." He speaks with a slight drawl, a product of many years spent in the South—first at college in Alabama and then 13 years in Texas.
White shows me into the facility and ushers me past its central feature, something he calls a quantum vacuum plasma thruster (QVPT). The device looks like a large red velvet doughnut with wires tightly wound around a core, and it's one of two initiatives Eagleworks is pursuing, along with warp drive. It's also secret. When I ask about it, White tells me he can't disclose anything other than that the technology is further along than warp drive. A 2011 NASA report he wrote says it uses quantum fluctuations in empty space as a fuel source, so that a spaceship propelled by a QVPT would not require propellant.
White's warp experiment is tucked into the back corner of the room. A helium-neon laser is bolted onto a small table pricked with a lattice of holes, along with a beam splitter and a black-and-white commercial CCD camera. This is a White-Juday warp field interferometer, which White named for himself and Richard Juday, a retired JSC employee who is helping White analyze the data from the CCD. Half of the laser light passes through a ring—White's test device. The other half does not. If the ring has no effect, White would expect one type of signal at the CCD. If it warps space, he says "the interference pattern will be starkly different."
When the device is turned on, White's setup looks cinematically perfect: The laser is bright red, and the two beams cross like light sabers. There are four ceramic capacitors made of barium titanate inside the ring, which White charges to 23,000 volts. White has spent the last year and a half designing the experiment, and he says that the capacitors will "establish a very large potential energy." Yet when I ask how it would create the negative energy necessary to warp space-time he becomes evasive. "That gets into . . . I can tell you what I can tell you. I can't tell you what I can't tell you," he says. He explains that he has signed nondisclosure agreements that prevent him from revealing the particulars. I ask with whom he has the agreements. He says, "People come in and want to talk about some things. I just can't go into any more detail than that."
Another challenge is that in order to create a warp bubble that moves faster than light, scientists would need to distribute negative energy around a craft, including ahead of it. White doesn't think this is a problem; when I ask him about it, he says rather vaguely that a warp drive would work because of an "apparatus you have that's creating the conditions that you need." But creating those conditions in front of a ship would mean generating a distribution of negative energy that travels faster than light, a violation of the theory of general relativity.
Finally, warp drive poses a conceptual problem. In general relativity, faster-than-light travel is equivalent to moving about in time. In saying that a warp drive is feasible, White is also saying that he can create a time machine.
Those obstacles raise some significant doubts. "I don't think any normal understanding of physics predicts he's going to see anything in his experiments," says Ken Olum, a physicist at Tufts University, who served on a panel debating exotic propulsion at the 100 Year Starship gathering in 2011. Noah Graham, a physicist at Middlebury College who read two of White's papers at my request, wrote in an e-mail: "I don't see any valid science in either paper beyond the summaries of previous work."
Alcubierre, now a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is also doubtful. "Even if I'm in a spaceship in the middle and I have the negative energy, there's no way I can put it where I need it," he told me by phone from his home in Mexico City. "It's a nice idea. I like it because I wrote it myself. But it has a series of limitations that I've seen through the years, and I don't see how to fix them."
A breakthrough in propulsion could spell a new age at JSC and NASA, and to a degree that age is already upon us. Dawn, a probe launched in 2007, is exploring the asteroid belt using ion thrusters. In 2010, a Japanese team deployed Ikaros, the first interplanetary craft driven by a solar sail, another type of experimental propulsion. And in 2016, scientists plan to test VASIMR, a plasma-based system designed for high-thrust propulsion, on the ISS. While those systems might one day carry astronauts to Mars, they still will not be able to send astronauts beyond the solar system. To do that, White says NASA will need to embrace riskier projects.
Warp drive is perhaps the most far-fetched of all NASA's propulsion efforts. The greater scientific community says White cannot create it. Experts say he's working against the laws of nature and physics. Nonetheless, NASA is behind it. "He's not funded at a very high level in terms of what he's trying to accomplish," Applewhite says. "I think there's very much interest within the directorate to continue growing his work. These are the kinds of theoretical concepts that, if they come to fruition, would be game changers."
In January, White packed up his warp interferometer and moved it to a new facility. Eagleworks had outgrown its first home. The new lab is larger and, he says enthusiastically, "It's seismically isolated," meaning it is shielded from vibrations. But perhaps the best thing about the new lab is also the most telling. NASA assigned White to a facility that was built for the Apollo program, the same one that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
Konstantin Kakaes is a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation.
This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Popular Science Magazine.
I can think of two ways to artificially create space-time curvature; A quantum superfluid circulating at near light speed velocities would create Lense-Thirring frame dragging. It would have to be magnetically confined but the numbers are consistent with GRT. The other is to construct a gravitational traveling wave amplifier. Rapidly contra rotating disks of relativistically dense matter would create a modulated gravitational beam which would also distort space. If quantum fluctuation is indeed being tapped then there would more than enough energy available to power either one of these devices.
A warp drive can become technologically implementable with phased standing waves. www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgAwyr5Udzw
If deep down within your whole being you do not believe that people can do this you are much different than I am. Our destiny is to explore and investigate the boundaries of our imaginations in a way that is immensely rewarding to our lives. It is not our nature to be afraid and enslaved by doubt. I for one will stand back and be reasonably patient of anyone as promising as this man and applaud if what he says is true. We Dont have anything to lose and everything to gain. Our own social, religious, political government systems and the rather predictable human condition have and probably will continue to control and hold us back. Could we have been wrong all along? That doesn't make sense. I am Not religious but even the Christian bible says to go forth and have dominion over the planet and there isn't anything written there about waiting for anyone to tell us it is okay to explore other earth like planets. Just the opposite. There are more references in all ancient texts that suggest that it is our compulsion or destiny to explore beyond earth.
This is suspiciously close to what was suggested in the Philadelphia Experiment, and Back to the Future... polarity reversal of the EM Fields with the proper use of magnets and capacitors resulting in a time warp in the field, and something that I thought about some 30 years ago while taking physics in college long before either of those... maybe there is something to it after all.
Wow! Shall I assume that the 'warp bubble' will insulate me from all effects of the normal world? Like the eye of a storm or the womb of a mother!!!
1. Assuming uniform acceleration to the halfway point, the travelers would experience a continuous G-force of ONLY 5675 G's. Not sure how they will handle that. Imagine some REAL INTENSE training or serious feats of bio-engineering.
2. Further, I will assume that the bubble being a space-time distortion field will tunnel through this universe, so all obstacles like quasers, pulsars, black holes, simple suns like ours and planets would be momentarily displaced/moved aside as the distortion wave passes.
What am i missing here? Mind you, I am a simple 9-5 office guy with high school science knowledge.
Would appreciate any insight here :)
Perhaps I should loan Dr. White my wife. She comes with enough negative energy to propel the Enterprise to the Andromeda galaxy.
It is a damned shame that an entire month's worth of "science" articles has to be round-filed just because this magazines editorial staff never matured past the age of kindergarten, with their inane "April Fools" BS. What is even worse is that one can never be certain they are doing it each year. So the only recourse is to trash anything published in the month of April every single year.
To my knowledge there are only two who have discovered things faster than light;
CERN and myself
I love that "on the verge" comment. Although I salute NASA for building a few impressive rockets, their real claim to fame is the developing the famous theory of relative money where Money = Productive result * speed of light squared. How else can you blow a BBBBBBillion dollars on a single launch of the shuttle. Wow, $100,000/pound to put something into space. It's easy when it's other people's money. I'll take any bet that if and when warp drive is discovered, it won't be by a bureaucracy.
@realguy32, mass inside the warp bubble does not accelerate, the contracts, then expands.
@ PSCIZ; Sony White is a real person and really does work for NASA.
However, the head line of this story should be "A NASA scientist claims to be on the verge of a SEMI-PLAUSIBLE THEORY OF faster-than-light travel".
If they could use the inherent gravity/attraction of matter as a means, amplification of those forces would be something which might allow a much superior propulsion system to what we currently have? Negative energy seems to be a red herring from what I have read and understand? Though I do believe that we need to continue to experiment with new ways and theories which may possibly yield breakthroughs which would allow advanced technologies to be developed for potential faster than light travel? Even if some of these 'theories' seem fantastic, we still need to explore them, even if only to rule them out? After all Einstein defined insanity as doing something the same way over and over and yet expecting different results?
This is either a 1st of April joke or a charlatan's baloney.
There will not be any cosmic flying around in the future.
....So in order not to not be affected by the laws of gravity you would need to somehow be super statically charged to enter a nook or crevice to zip through!??! Does anybody remember the movies 'Clocktstoppers' or 'Honey, I blew up the kid' where after being in this state, all their particles couldn't stop accelerating!?!?
Well... even if this proves to be impossible, proving that would be learning something. Maybe something else useful will come from it along the way. And if... (I'm not hopeful here but) if this ends up working then that would be awesome!
Nope. No G's here. None at all. What you are missing is that with this kind of propulsion the ship does not actually move. Space moves (stretches) around it. Yeah, it's kind of hard to wrap your mind around but theoretically it is possible. Now possible in a practical way... that is the current debate.
I can help acheive this goal. Come to my office. We have all the negative energy you could ever need.
You know better than to publish these kind of "revolutionary/upside down" stories ("famous physycist Trebla Nietsnie demonstrates that sometimes 2+2=5 depending on the speed of wind") precisely on April First. Gotcha.
All right, I have checked. Sonny White does exist, and he is a NASA guy. So, deeply humiliated, I retract my words regarding your April Fools prank. But maybe HE is the one doing the joke... All the best.
Okay- i have this question. Don't get me wrong i love innovation. but just saying has anyone actually created antimatter?
Yea, antimatter is quite "common" in medicine as well as CERN.
More advanced structures of it are just really really expensive to make
@morgauxo, thx. The idea does stretch the mind.
Well, I guess if you can manipulate the fabric of space-time, then anything is possible. We are actually changing reality as we know it.
Still, it sounds suspiciously like an Einstein-Rosen bridge without the attendant energy requirements; essentially substituting with negative energy.
Sounds pretty far fetched.
From a spiritual standpoint, sounds plausible, as has been claimed by seers of the past. Won't it be great if this happens in this lifetime. Here's hoping . . .
On second thoughts,
As a race, we are greedy & self absorbed, at an early stage of spiritual evolution. Are we really ready to travel outside our system and contaminate other worlds? We haven't even conquered poverty on our planet and have a terrible human rights record, let alone other species that we only see as prey and for amusement. Yet to understand our own chemistry and cure our diseases. Yet to understand the concept of security without violence & guns. And so on . . .
Somebody said 300 years. We may not evolve much spiritually by then, but at least we may progress in other areas, especially on the topic of the rights of all things.
Would such an achievement result in our spiritual evolution or settle into greater greed and deeper despair?
Another era of Columbus? Where personal innovation & technological advancements end in so much hate & destruction.
Food for thought!!!
Gravity is NOT an attractive force, it is a warp in space time that alters the path of unbound object in its path.
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The only warping is in the minds of "SPACE" scientists. The speed of light is controlled by the density of SPACE MATTER through which it travels. The speed of SOLID MATTER travels at speeds determined by the thrust applied, modified by the SPACE MATTER through which it travels and the effects of gravity. The less dense the matter the the faster the travel for a given thrust.
The MATTER of space varies with 15% being elemental combinations making up the Visible Universe to Planck size Particles surrounded by a Gravity field causing them to resonate at rather high frequencies. They contain 85% of all MATTER and are the carriers of light particles BY PHYSICAL CONTACT. They freely flow through all manner of matter and modulate adjacent vibrating particles absorbing and releasing light molecules.
Fusion generation can harness these particles in space and propel matter at thousands of times the speed of light.
During the bigga banga the speed of matter was about 10,000,000,000 times the speed of light.
I just hope that before they actually run this drive, that someone will do research into any potential unintentional effects, such as the possibility that it might affect earth's orbit, maybe due to the expanding warp bubble.
Even though the earth is far larger than the spacecraft, the fact that it may accelerate the ship to greater than light speed could be enough to have a much smaller but still significant effect on earth. (orbit, spin, tilt, magnetic field, internals, atmosphere, oceans, moon, etc.)
I'm not an expert, but hope that those who are will take them into consideration. After all we have only one earth.
If you were driving a car at warp speed and you turned your lights on, would they do anything?
I was thinking about one of the problems with going warp speed, to be exact getting negative energy (if it exists) in front of the ship. Well I thought maybe it might work if you used a bread-trail technique as in shooting the negative energy, if you can control it well enough, out in front and follow it to where ever you want to go and how far you want to go?
Apart from the fact that I'm an optimist, and we would still be living in caves if we only listened to nay sayers. A big point overlooked albeit questionable is; UFO reports from fairly credible witnesses i.e. pilots, servicemen, police and other professionals all or most have one thing in common; the observed craft can appear to turn at right angles at high speed. The only way I can think of to avoid the crush of inertia is for them to be in a warp-like state. There is a very good possibility that there are civilizations thousands of years in advance of our own, who mastered this technology along time ago. I think it or something like it has already been done, just not on Earth.
I and a friend saw several meteors one night, one came in and halfway across the sky, stopped instantaneously, dimmed, dropped straight down, brightened up and took off in a different direction. My friend and I looked at each other in stunned disbelief. What it was, I don't know. I still can't explain it. So I keep an open mind.
As thrilling as the possibility of warp or beyond warp capabilities is to myself and fans of science and science fiction, it will be a terrifying end of the age of innocence for billions of people. Religion will be on very shaky ground.
My sentiments can be best summed up by quoting Captain Picard "Make it so" I guess Sonny will be the first to say "Engage."
After reading the article, I believe this is somewhere between fringe science and real science. In principle, moving an object from Point A to Point B in space should be possible without expending energy, because the object is at rest before and after the move, hence no energy is permanently added to it. Given this, the idea of negative and positive energy makes some sense, since they could ultimately cancel each other out. So, I believe, with the right technology, this could be feasible, but we are a long ways from making it practical (but who knows, we could get lucky).