Why We Can't Stop Thinking About Warp Drive

A model of James T. Kirk playing with a replica of the Starship Enterprise.
Debuting in 1966, Star Trek made the universe seem like a much smaller place -- thanks, in part, to the time and space-bending power of the warp drive. Willrow Hood/Shutterstock.com

Could we someday fire up a warp engine — and boldly go where no one has gone before?

The idea of navigating the universe at warp speed has tickled our collective imagination ever since Capt. James Tiberius Kirk first ordered his chief engineer to fire those interstellar engines in the original "Star Trek."

It made planet-hopping a breeze. No more growing old on your way to Romulus. You could have breakfast on Talos IV and still make your afternoon yoga session on Vulcan.

So, can we have a warp drive please?

Back in 2015, NASA put it bluntly: "The bulk of scientific knowledge concludes that it's impossible, especially when considering Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

"There are many 'absurd' theories that have become reality over the years of scientific research. But for the near future, warp drive remains a dream."

A visual of how a warp drive might look.
A warp drive would create a bubble around a spaceship, keeping it intact, while space and time distorts around it. Quardia/Shutterstock

But things have a funny way of coming back around to show creator Gene Roddenberry's way of thinking. And today, the warp engine is being revisited as a potentially viable technology.

But before we boldly go there, we should get a quick understanding of the Roddenberry model. According to HowStuffWorks, the Enterprise's warp engine relies on dilithium crystals, a substance as vital to space travel as it is fictional. Dilithium somehow keeps a lid on a volatile process inside a warp engine — matter-antimatter annihilation.

It's like catching chaos itself by the tail. And you can't hold it for very long. Hence the immortal words of chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott: "If we keep this speed, we'll blow up any minute now."

The process results in a "warp field" — basically a protective sheath around the spaceship that keeps it safe while time and space bend around it.

We know you've got questions, Einstein. But this being 1960s sci-fi, let's allow the suspension of disbelief. The whole idea is to beat the speed of light by folding space in order to bring your destination to you.

Of course, scientists aren't in the habit of suspending disbelief. So for the longest time, the concept of a warp drive was summarily dismissed. But not by all.

Alcubierre's folly

In 1994, Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggested that we might be able to tap into a similar matter-antimatter dynamic to build a real warp drive. His warp drive was essentially a football-shaped spacecraft encircled by a ring. The ring would be made of something-something — we don't quite know what yet — and it would cause space and time to blur around the craft.

The result? As the video below details, our very own warp field, where space is crammed tight in front of the vessel, and expanded behind it.

We know that antimatter has staggering potential for creating propulsive energy. But the fact that it's harder to find than dilithium was only one of a few gaps in the Alcubierre warp model.

And, of course, quoth the NASA, nevermore.

Enter Joseph Agnew

So the idea of a warp engine idled. Until an undergraduate engineer named Joseph Agnew from the University of Alabama took the podium at this year's American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Propulsion and Energy Forum.

As Science Alert reports, Agnew made some adjustments to the Alcubierre concept, presenting his revised model to the forum last week — and possibly revving up an old dream along the way.

"In my experience, the mention of warp drive tends to bring chuckles to the conversation because it is so theoretical and right out of science fiction," he explains to Universe Today. "In fact, often it is met with dismissive remarks, and used as an example of something totally outlandish, which is understandable."

But his study, published in Aerospace Research Central, suggests a faster-than-light (FTL) engine is possible, and would still abide by Einstein's all-important theory of relativity. That's because the spacecraft wouldn't move through space and time, but rather manipulate it from within the protective bubble known as the warp field. Everything inside that field, including its crew, would remain unchanged. It's the space around them that would change.

It wouldn't be the first time technologies from "Star Trek" lore found their way into our reality. Everything from cloaking devices to universal translators to virtual worlds — once the staples of sci-fi — have reared their head in the real world. Even a new theoretical propulsion system known as an EmDrive gives off very strong "Star Trek" vibrations.

As an ode to the show's influence on space exploration, NASA has even named several planets after locales from the show.

And remember the original computer on the bridge of the USS Enterprise? For all its giant glowing knobs, it was remarkably responsive to voice commands.

"Computer, how far is Omicron Delta region?"

"Processing ... processing..."

Does that sound like someone you know today? Indeed, Google Assistant is, in many ways, a refined version of the "Star Trek" computer. She's even quicker on the uptake than that old ship's computer — no more "processing ... processing". And her voice is a lot less creepy — although Google may make up for that in other potentially menacing ways.

So it makes sense that we at least try to take the warp engine for a spin — even if it's still more flight of fancy than reality, imagination has a funny way of holding the door open for science to eventually walk through.

And if it means a well-earned vacation on the show's famed vacation planet, Risa, well, beam us up Scotty.

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