Warp Drives and The Future of Exploration

It is common knowledge that humans haven’t set foot on anything beyond the Moon. Even Mars, which is within our reach, given our technological progress, has not yet seen a single human mission on it. This utter lack of exploration is saddening as well as de-moralizing. The ability to explore the solar system, which we’ve had since the 1960s, has not been utilized at all by the Governments of the world, and this has led to what can only be termed as an ‘exploration winter.’ However, things will not stay as-is forever.

Recently NASA made headlines as it announced to the world that it plans to go to the Moon and then set up a base there to aid exploration further out in the Solar system, primarily to Mars. This piece of good news was celebrated across the scientific community and rightly so. However, scientists have begun to set their sights on planets much farther away than Mars.

Mars is the next destination for humanity in its quest for exploration.

These planets are so far away that living in a relativistic Universe; we can’t send human-crewed missions through conventional methods. Speed of Light is an absolute speed limit that no one can break, and under this draconian law, getting to the nearest planet outside the Solar system will take 4.5 years, assuming we can travel at 99.99% speed of light.

Then what do we do? Do we give up on exploring the universe outside of the Solar system? Physicist Miguel Alcubierre answered this question long ago, and the answer is no. He came up with a theoretical model of propulsion called the Alcubierre Drive, which in common parlance we call as ‘warp drive.’

This idea generated a lot of excitement as well as scepticism amongst the scientific community. The idea wasn’t new. Movies such as Star Wars and Star Trek had been using this idea to create fictional Universes where civilizations could easily travel throughout the Universe using these drives. However, Miguel was the first physicist who gave some scientific thought to it and came up with a theoretical piece of machinery that could travel faster than light.

Alcubierre Drive stretches space time to create a wave that it can ride for FTL travel.

The exciting aspect of this is that scientists are not treating it as some general futuristic idea. In-fact, Alcubierre’s drive was the topic of a presentation made at this year’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Propulsion and Energy Forum.

The presentation included a thorough explanation of the concepts behind the warp theory and some thoughts on the feasibility of the said concept. The warp drive is a highly theoretical concept. However, the greatest USP it has is that it does not break any laws of Physics, which means it is possible. Feasibility, however, is another question altogether.

The Alcubierre drive achieves Faster Than Light travel by stretching the fabric of space-time. This causes space ahead of it to contract, whereas the space behind it expands, giving the driver an obscene amount of speed. It can achieve FTL because it is not moving through space-time rather moving space-time itself. This means there is no limit on how fast it can go. The biggest hurdle in making such a drive is the sheer amount of energy required to do one work. Current estimates place the energy requirements somewhere at energy equivalent to Jupiter’s mass.

Whatever happens next, we are certain that our tendency to explore the Universe is not going to die down soon. Therefore it would be wise to watch the developments in this field and hope for the best.

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