posted by Thom Holwerda on Thu 7th May 2009 22:24 UTC
IconToday, the new Star Trek film has seen its official premiere here in The Netherlands tonight, and in honour of that, I figured an article on Space.com about the possibility of faster-than-light travel would make a good fit on OSNews. The article is quite technical, so bear with me on this one. I hope I get everything right.

The general idea behind the warp drive propulsion as used in the Star Trek universe is that the space ship itself isn't moving - space-time around it is moving. Elementary knowledge for Trekkies, but obviously still science fiction mumbo jumbo nonsense. Right...?

Well, not exactly, according to some scientists and physicists over at NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project. According to some models, space-time expanded faster than light speed during a very short period right after the big bang. "If it could do it for the Big Bang, why not for our space drives?" said Marc Millis, former head of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project.

This strictly theoretical method of propulsion requires a bit of insight into Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. In that theory, any concentration of mass or energy warps the space-time around it. This is actually the basic premise of gravity: larger masses create bigger curvatures in space- time than smaller objects, so that the latter simply fall towards the former. You can replicate this behaviour on a trampoline. If you place a large lead ball in one position, and a smaller one further away, the smaller one will roll towards the larger ball.

"If we find some way to alter the properties of space-time in an imbalanced fashion, so behind the spacecraft it's doing one thing and in front of it it's doing something else, will then space-time push on the craft and move it?" Millis said. This theory isn't new, and was already proposed by Miguel Alcubierre, in his 1994 paper "The Warp Drive: Hyper-fast travel within general relativity". Endlessly fascinating.

In the lab, several experiments already seem to indicate possible signatures of moving space-time, but the biggest problem is that of energy: we really need lots of it. Some experts believe dark energy might give the answer here.

So, we're still far away from FTL propulsion, but we are making more and more very small and tiny steps towards it. "We still don't even know if those things are possible or impossible, but at least we've progressed far enough to where there are things that we can actually research to chip away at the unknowns," Millis told Space.com, "Even if they turn out to be impossible, by asking these questions, we're likely to discover things that otherwise we might overlook."

Good times, people, good times. I want my own Serenity. With Kaylee.

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