On November 26, 2012, io9’s George Dvorsky interviewed NASA physicist Dr. Harold White about an exciting new development in interstellar transportation: a feasible design for a warp drive that can travel across vast distances faster than the speed of light thanks to a convenient loophole in general relativity. By contracting space-time in front of a spacecraft and expanding space-time behind it, the Alcubierre drive moves space around a warp-bubble containing the craft. Travelling to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own sun at 4.3 light-years, would take only two weeks using this warp drive.
From Dvorsky’s interview:
“Remember, nothing locally exceeds the speed of light, but space can expand and contract at any speed,” White told io9. “However, space-time is really stiff, so to create the expansion and contraction effect in a useful manner in order for us to reach interstellar destinations in reasonable time periods would require a lot of energy.”
But White has discovered a tweak in the physical design of the warp drive that could use a great deal less energy. Less, in fact, than the mass used by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
“My early results suggested I had discovered something that was in the math all along,” he recalled. “I suddenly realized that if you made the thickness of the negative vacuum energy ring larger — like shifting from a belt shape to a donut shape — and oscillate the warp bubble, you can greatly reduce the energy required — perhaps making the idea plausible.”
Theoretically the Alcubierre drive, originally proposed as a theory in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, is entirely possible with current technology, but only further tests will determine whether the theory holds up in practice. Dr. White is currently testing for microscopic disturbances created by test machines using a modified Michelson-Morley interferometer, a device that produces interference patterns in beams of light.
Dr. White is the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate and also works with Icarus Interstellar, a “nonprofit foundation dedicated to achieving interstellar flight by 2100.” He holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Rice University, a Master’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Wichita State University, and a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering from University of South Alabama.
More information can be found at io9’s original article.