Image: Starship
NASA / Glenn Research Center
A spaceship capable of flying to other star systems might have to rely on out-of-this-world breakthroughs in propulsion physics, such as a "warp drive" approach.
By
Universe Today
updated 3/1/2012 6:16:01 PM ET 2012-03-01T23:16:01

Planning a little space travel to see some friends on Kepler 22b? Thinking of trying out your newly-installed FTL3000 Alcubierre Warp Drive to get you there in no time? Better not make it a surprise visit — your arrival may end up disintegrating anyone there when you show up.

“Warp” technology and faster-than-light (FTL) space travel has been a staple of science fiction for decades. The distances in space are just so vast, and planetary systems — even within a single galaxy — are spaced so far apart, that such a concept is needed to make casual human exploration feasible. The concept also caters to the comforts of people’s imagination: Nobody wants to think about Kirk and Spock bravely going to some alien planet while everyone they’ve ever known dies of old age!

While many factors involving FTL travel are purely theoretical — and may remain in the realm of imagination for a very long time, perhaps forever — there are some concepts that play well with currently-accepted physics.

The Alcubierre warp drive is one of those concepts.

Proposed by Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, the drive would propel a ship at superluminal speeds by creating a bubble of negative energy around it, expanding space (and time) behind the ship while compressing space in front of it. In much the same way that a surfer rides a wave, the bubble of space containing the ship and its passengers would be pushed at velocities not limited to the speed of light toward a destination.

Of course, when the ship reaches its destination it has to stop. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have done some advanced crunching of numbers regarding the effects of FTL space travel via Alcubierre drive, taking into consideration the many types of cosmic particles that would be encountered along the way. Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B. Rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team — led by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne — has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.

When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.

“Any people at the destination,” the team’s paper concludes, “would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.”

In other words, don’t expect much of a welcome party.

Another thing the team found is that the amount of energy released is dependent on the length of the superluminal journey, but there is potentially no limit on its intensity.

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“Interestingly, the energy burst released upon arriving at the destination does not have an upper limit,” McMonigal told Universe Today in an email. “You can just keep on traveling for longer and longer distances to increase the energy that will be released as much as you like, one of the odd effects of general relativity. Unfortunately, even for very short journeys the energy released is so large that you would completely obliterate anything in front of you.”

So how to avoid disintegrating your port of call? It may be as simple as just aiming your vessel a bit off to the side … or it may not. The research only focused on the planar space in front of and behind the warp bubble; deadly postwarp particle beams could end up blown in all directions!

Luckily for Vulcans, Tatooinians and any acquaintances on Kepler 22b, the Alcubierre warp drive is still very much theoretical. While the mechanics work with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the creation of negative energy densities is an as-of-yet unknown technology — and may be impossible.

Which could be a very good thing for us, should someone out there be planning a surprise visit our way!

Read more about Alcubierre warp drives here, and you can download the full University of Sydney team’s research paper here.

Thanks to Brendan McMonigal and Geraint Lewis for the extra information!

Jason is a graphic artist from Rhode Island now living and working in Dallas. He writes about astronomy and space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark and for other news outlets. This report was originally published on Feb. 29 on Universe Today with the headline "Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside."

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Copyright © 2013 Universe Today. Republished with permission.

Explainer: 10 pieces of Star Trek tech

  • Paramount Pictures

    The latest reboot of the Star Trek franchise follows the story of a young James Kirk on his way to becoming captain of the Starship Enterprise. The movie gives Trekkies a fresh dose of fictional high-tech wizardry. But is any of this possible in the real world? Click the "Next" arrow above to see how 10 pieces of Trek tech, from teleportation to warp drive, are faring here on Earth.

    -- By John Roach, MSNBC contributor

  • Teleportation: a work in progress

    Ray Strange  /  AFP via Getty Images file

    "Beam me up, Scotty!" Oh, how easy travel would be if the technology existed to disintegrate our bodies in one place and nearly instantaneously make them reappear at our destination. Unfortunately, that kind of teleportation remains firmly fixed in the realm of Star Trek fiction. However, scientists are meeting with some success as they try to teleport messages encoded in beams of light across table-length distances, such as this experiment from 2002. More recent advances include teleporting information from one trapped atom to another.

  • Tricorder-like device scans for cancer

    Boris Rubinsky et al.

    Star Trek fans know tricorders as familiar handheld devices that scan unfamiliar planets (and organisms). Real-world citizens, too, are becoming familiar with a host of futuristic gizmos that do everything from reading a critter's DNA to scanning patients for cancerous tumors, as shown in this side-by-side comparison of a fictional tricorder (left) and a medical scan of simulated breast tumor displayed on a cell phone.

  • Deflector shield envisioned for Mars missions

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    A so-called deflector shield surrounds the Starship Enterprise, protecting the spacecraft and its crew from lethal doses of radiation. Lab experiments now suggest that a portable magnetic shield could protect real-life astronauts on a mission to Mars. The shield would force harmful particles to curve around the ship. The engineering details remain to be worked out, and for now, the shield protects only against particles from the solar wind. Gamma rays and X-rays would remain a threat. An artistic depiction of the technology deployed on the Enterprise is shown here.

  • U.S. Air Force develops PHaSER

    Image: PHaSER
    U.s. Air Force

    The weapon of choice for Trekkies is the phaser, a device that directs an adjustable beam of energy at its target. The phaser is capable of a range of effects, from a momentary stun to instant obliteration. The U.S. Air Force has developed its own prototype device with the Star Trek moniker PHaSER (Personal Halting and Stimulation Response). The hefty gunlike device was originally developed to blind an attacker temporarily. A second laser has since been added capable of heating up skin.

  • Holodeck tech emerging

    Tom Uhlman  /  AP

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  • Tractor beam manipulates cells on a chip

    MIT

    In Star Trek, tractor beams are used by starships and space stations to control the movement of objects usually to pull them in closer, tow them along, or push them away. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have used a tractor beam of light to pick up, hold and move around individual cells on the surface of a microchip. To demonstrate the technology, the researchers moved around and held in place 16 E. coli cells to spell out MIT, as shown in this image.

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    Apple Inc. via AP

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    iTRAVL

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    Naomi Halas, Rice University |

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  • Warp drive? Don't bet on it

    Les Bossinas  /  NASA

    The Enterprise can travel faster than light via something called warp drive — essentially, a device that warps the space-time continuum around a starship. Many scientists have batted around ideas about how to achieve blistering speeds in real life, but most experts have concluded that, at least for now, warping the fabric of space is beyond human understanding of the laws of physics. Among the difficulties is harnessing the energy required to kick-start the propulsion.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

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  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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