PORTLAND, Ore. With the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise packing theaters, researchers are again speculating about the feasibility of building a faster-than-light "warp drive" similar to the one powering Star Trek's "Enterprise" star ship.
Researchers at Baylor University (Waco, Texas) claim that dark energy--the force causing the universe to expand--could power a warp drive by expanding the fabric of space behind the ship while simultaneously contracting space ahead of it. The scheme could theoretically enable a ship to traverse light years in distance without violating Einstein's prohibition on faster-than-light travel.
"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," said Baylor researcher Gerald Cleaver.
"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."
This space-warping mechanism for faster-than-light travel (without actually exceeding the speed of light) was first proposed in 1994 by the Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre. At that time, there was no known mechanism to explain how the effect could be realized. Thanks to string theory, the Baylor scientists claim that dark energy could theoretically be harnessed to realize a warp drive.
However, the amount of energy required would be enormous, equivalent to converting the entire mass of Jupiter to energy. That amount is at least feasible, whereas Einstein's original calculations found that simply traveling at the speed of light would take an infinite amount of energy.
Baylor researcher Richard Obousy said the required energy needed to warp space could potentially be sharply reduced in the future.
"Early calculations indicated that a warp drive would require more mass energy than was available in the entire universe," Obousy said. "Later, a more ingenious calculation demonstrated that it would require about the mass energy contained within an entire galaxy. What is exciting about our warp drive paradigm is that we have further reduced the energy requirement to the total mass energy contained in a typical gas giant--the planet Jupiter, for example.
"This is a reduction of energy by a factor of about 1 trillion. If one were to optimistically extrapolate this gradual reduction in energy requirements, then there may be hope in the future that we could continue to find ways to reduce the energy requirements of such a technology," he added.
The power for a Star Trek-like warp drive was derived from the energy released in a matter-antimatter annihilation. Researchers think such a scheme could one day supply enough power for an Alcubierre warp drive with energy requirements reduced through future innovations.