Undergraduate presents theoretical plans for a warp drive

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An undergrad researcher believes that real-life warp drive technology is coming.

Engage!

Science fiction has long sidestepped the pesky cosmic speed limit, the speed of light, with the concept of warp drives. The Enterprise wouldn’t have boldly gone anywhere without the aid of warp drive technology. The “Star Wars” universe uses a similar system called hyperdrive.

To put the immense distances that sci-fi heroes have to travel in perspective, the Trappist system is a group of potentially habitable planets that would offer sci-fi-like vistas from their surfaces. It’s 40 light-years away from Earth. Thus, even traveling close to the speed of light, it would take someone Luke Skywalker’s age when he left Tatooine well into their 50s to reach Trappist. Now, another young person thinks that he might have the solution to shortening cosmic travel times with a warp drive, Vice’s Motherboard reports.

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Warp Speed, Mr. Agnew

University of Alabama Huntsville undergraduate researcher Joseph Agnew recently gave a presentation at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Propulsion and Energy Forum in Indianapolis. In his talk, Agnew outlined the theoretical possibility of warp travel. The old guard of physicists once scoffed at such notions. However, as evidenced by Agnew’s full-capacity crowd at the forum, scientists have come around to the idea.

Agnew’s research extrapolates on the work of Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre. In 1994, Alcubierre posited that an object, like a spaceship, could warp space-time in front of itself. The so-called Alcubierre Drive would, theoretically, create a “wave bubble” around a spacecraft. The resulting bubble would then warp space-time.

Related: Fact from fiction: how sci-fi has shaped innovation

This process would basically allow the bubble to travel faster than light. More importantly, and paradoxically, the spacecraft inside the wave bubble would never break the speed of light. The issue that physicists took with Alcubierre’s work pertained to actually creating the wave bubble. Detractors said that it would take all of the energy in the entire universe to create such a bubble.

That’s where Agnew’s work comes in. “People used to say, ‘you’re dealing in something that would be great, but it takes the mass of the entire universe to do it,’” Agnew said in his presentation. “Now, we’re down to where it is still an immense amount of energy—and exotic matter is still a problem—but if we had that energy, we could do it.”

Make It So

So, just how much energy would it take to create a warp dive? Agnew explained that the amount of energy has gone down from an entire universe’s worth to something equivalent to the mass of Jupiter.

Others have speculated that, with a little tweaking, the amount of energy could go down even more. The bottom line, as Agnew pointed out, is that as science and technology progress, the amount of energy required to create a wrap drive will continue to go down.

“My hope is that the next decade or two will provide an opportunity to study gravity and space-time in much more detail and on a scale not attempted yet,” Agnew told Motherboard.

As is often the case with science fact, it begins with science fiction. “There’s a desire to see how science fiction inspires people to make those technologies a reality, and how they can improve our quality of life or open new doors for exploration and learning.”