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Scientists learn how to surf space at 'warp speed'

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
September 18th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Star Trek may be closer than we think. Researchers now believe that faster-than-light space travel is not only possible, but quite feasible given the development of new technology. 

LOS ANGELES, Ca (Catholic Online) - It was Albert Einstein who explained to that nothing could exceed the universal speed limit, set by the speed of light - about 186,000 miles per second. This is because of the peculiar nature of physics. 

As an object accelerates, its mass also increases. To continue accelerating, an increasingly massive object needs more energy. At the point an object reaches the speed of light, it's mass, and therefore the energy to propel it, would be infinite thus requiring more energy than is contained in the universe.

However, there is another peculiar feature of the universe that scientists think they can manipulate to overcome this limitation. 

Space-time, is a 4th dimension that is understood well in physical models of the universe, and can be best understood as a sheet of fabric that stretches to the ends of the universe. In reality, this fabric occupies all three dimensional space, but a two dimensional imagining of it serves understanding best. 

Spacetime is not perfectly flat, but rather it is distorted by massive objects. For example, a planet warps spacetime around it much the same way a bowling ball would warp a sheet on a very soft bed.

Those dimples in spacetime are what causes planets to orbit the sun, and the moon to orbit Earth, and so on. 

Scientists have been able to accurately observe and measure these distortions, so they are well understood. 

Back in 1994, a Mexican physicist, Miguel Alcubierre came up with the idea of a warp drive that would run on less than infinite energy by distorting spacetime around a craft. Basically, the object would warp the spacetime around it, using exotic matter and a high-energy power supply to warp spacetime around it while keeping the spaceship itself safely wrapped in a bubble of normal space.

This warping would cause the ship to fall in the direction of the warp, or in this case, forward, without breaking the laws of physics. This is much like how a surfer rides a wave. 

Since the ship is flying in space, without any resistance to its fall, its speed could be several times faster than light. Researchers think it could manage about 10 times the speed of light. 

Such speeds would reduce the amount of travel time to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, to about 5 months. 

So why aren't we surfing space yet?

Alcubierre's concept still required a lot of energy, about the energy equivalent to the mass-energy of  Jupiter, and since we only have one of those lying around, and it's already being used, the concept was shelved. But recently, researchers at NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center think they may have a way to cut down on that requirement. 

By adjusting the shape of the ring slightly, they can make the design much more efficient, thus requiring the mass energy contained in a Voyager 1 space probe- sized object. This is within the realm of feasibility. 

Researchers now plan to test these ideas on a micro-scale, using lasers on tabletops to run the first battery of experiments. If those experiments prove successful, we could see faster-than-light travel within a matter of centuries rather than never. 

 

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