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|Science| - The Alcubierre Warp Drive


The Physics Behind The Warp Drive

This introduces the emerging science behind the possibility of apparent FTL space travel, by briefly discussing the Alcubierre Spacetime.

The Origins of Warp Drive Science

The first serious attempt to explore the possibility of a gravitational form of propulsion began in 1994 by a student of Wales University.  The young physicist by the name of Miguel Alcubierre studied the possibility of a warp drive-like method for Faster Than Light (FTL) travel.  The work was entitled "The Warp Drive:  Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity" which was published by the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity (Class.Quant.Grav. 11 (1994) L73).    Ever since there has been a small barrage of papers written on the subject of "warp drives."  [to see a simple comic of the Warp Drive from Science Toons click here]

How the Alcubierre Warp Drive Works

Alcubierre envisioned his theory of  warp drive behaving similar to a surfer riding a wave in the ocean essentially a spaceship would surf on a "warp bubble," to achieve apparent FTL velocity to an outside observer.   The paper worked well with the metrics of Einstein's, et al space-time equations, except for one minor detail.  Alcubierre's paper requires a large sum of negative energy which violates conservation laws by making gravity appear to repulse matter, i.e. producing an "anti-gravity" effect.  Aside from that, the solutions from the Alcubierre paper are in agreement with the laws of physics.

The Alcubierre Space-time in a nutshell: The simple concept of the Alcubierre Geometry is that a rocket for example; will maintain a small "anti-gravity" bubble around itself. Outside the bubble as the rocket begins to "accelerate," the space in front begins to contract. While at the rear of the rocket space expands, this has the effect of shortening the distance between two points in space by several fold.  

This method for constructing a warp drive spacetime is very simple, it acts to push a spaceship form its point of origin as well as to pull it towards some distant source. The Warp Drive Spacetime never causes an object to FTL, it however does make the local space surrounding the spaceship as though it is moving FTL, and this is acceptable within the general theory of relativity (below is a graphic of the field).

If one were to view the flat plane as a calm wave, and the larger wave as a warp drive it becomes quite easy to see the surfboard analogy made above.

Abstract of the Alcubierre Paper

It is shown how, within the framework of general relativity and without the introduction of wormholes, it is possible to modify a spacetime in a way that allows a spaceship to travel with an arbitrarily large speed. By a purely local expansion of spacetime behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it, motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region is possible. The resulting distortion is reminiscent of the "warp drive" of science fiction. However, just as it happens with wormholes, exotic matter will be needed in order to generate a distortion of spacetime like the one discussed here.

In summary it is from Alcubierre's that we have our first true scientific understanding of a "warp drive spacetime," and it is from this work that one can truly answer if a trek to the stars is indeed possible. The drawback of the Alcubierre paper comes from the large requirements of negative energies which lead to gross violations of conservation laws. Classically such an energy requirement would kill such a theory, however quantum mechanics allows minute forms of this energy to exist, the question now is if there is a second will and a way to be found.

©2001: Edward Halerewicz, Jr.

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