Creating a Real Warp Drive: Zero to 299,800,000 in No Time

Concept model of an Alcubierre Drive. Via NASA.

In 1994, Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed something seemingly out of science-fiction: a real, working warp drive with the capacity to travel faster than the speed of light. Well, “working” in the theoretical sense, but even then it did not quite follow the ever-present laws of physics. A warp drive is a type of engine designed to travel at the speed of light, which is a revolutionary concept, if one can solve the issue of hurtling a spacecraft with much more mass than a photon through space.

This idea, while not practical when it was first proposed, sparked a movement in aeronautical engineering and theoretical physics, even catching the attention of NASA. On February 18, 2021, physicists Gianni Martire and Alexey Bobrick of the Applied Physics laboratory announced their model of an Alcubierre Drive that adhered to the laws of physics, making future distant space travel more plausible. 

The issue with the original Alcubierre Drive regarded energy: how do you fuel something that is traveling at the speed of light? The answer: you don’t. Instead of the “negative energy” model proposed by Alcubierre—in which enough energy would be generated to literally distort space around the ship—Martire and Bobrick propose using an incredibly large mass to warp the space around the ship, similar to how Earth warps surrounding space, resulting in gravity. The consequent “bubble” of space would then propel the ship forwards and, by effectively compressing the space the ship has to travel through, allow it to travel at very high speeds. Such a solution eliminates the need for “negative energy,” and instead uses gravity as it works in our universe, as proposed by Einstein, to create a feasible warp drive.

While this proposal is exciting, the technology we currently have does not meet the level of sophistication required, and it is still unclear how we would get a mass so enormous onto such a small ship to create the bubble. Nevertheless, Martire and Bobrick’s idea brings us closer to a reality previously viewed as entirely fantastical: cruising at the speed of light, a goal which is rich with possibilities for the advancement of astronomy and, more excitingly, establishing human contact outside of our solar system.

This article was edited by Sarah McNamara and Hedy Goodman.