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A Groundbreaking Scientific Discovery Just Created the Instruction Manual for Light-Speed Travel

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With the ease of starting a car, the crew of the USS Enterprise starship streaks to a new adventure in every episode of Star Trek, somehow traveling at several times the speed of light. This sci-fi mode of practical interstellar travel, which television audiences first saw in 1966, inspired Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre Moya to investigate the feasibility of a real method for light-speed propulsion. Decades later, he published his cutting-edge research to an astonished community of theoretical physicists. The eponymous Alcubierre warp drive hypothetically contracts the spacetime in front of a spaceship while expanding the spacetime behind it, so that the ship moves from Point A to Point B at an “arbitrarily fast” speed. By distorting spacetime—the continuum enfolding the three dimensions of space and time—an observer outside the ship’s “warp bubble” would see the ship moving faster than the speed of light, even though observers inside the craft would feel no acceleration forces.

If a superluminal—meaning faster than the speed of light—warp drive like Alcubierre’s worked, it would revolutionize humanity’s endeavors across the universe, allowing us, perhaps, to reach Alpha Centauri, our closest star system, in days or weeks even though it’s four light years away.

The clip above from the 2016 film Star Trek Beyond showcases the effect of a starship zipping through space inside a faster-than-light warp bubble. You can see the imagined but hypothetically accurate warping of spacetime.

However, the Alcubierre drive has a glaring problem: the force behind its operation, called “negative energy,” involves exotic particles—hypothetical matter that, as far as we know, doesn’t exist in our universe. Described only in mathematical terms, exotic particles act in unexpected ways, like having negative mass and working in opposition to gravity (in fact, it has “anti-gravity”). For the past 30 years, scientists have been publishing research that chips away at the inherent hurdles to light speed revealed in Alcubierre’s foundational 1994 article published in the peer-reviewed journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

Now, researchers at the New York City-based think tank Applied Physics believe they’ve found a creative new approach to solving the warp drive’s fundamental roadblock. Along with colleagues from other institutions, the team envisioned a “positive energy” system that doesn’t violate the known laws of physics. It’s a game-changer, say two of the study’s authors: Gianni Martire, CEO of Applied Physics, and Jared Fuchs, Ph.D., a senior scientist there. Their work, also published in Classical and Quantum Gravity in late April, could be the first chapter in the manual for interstellar spaceflight.

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Positive energy makes all the difference. Imagine you are an astronaut in space, pushing a tennis ball away from you. Instead of moving away, the ball pushes back, to the point that it would “take your hand off” if you applied enough pushing force, Martire tells Popular Mechanics. That’s a sign of negative energy, and, though the Alcubierre drive design requires it, there’s no way to harness it.

Instead, regular old positive energy is more feasible for constructing the “warp bubble.” As its name suggests, it’s a spherical structure that surrounds and encloses space for a passenger ship using a shell of regular—but incredibly dense—matter. The bubble propels the spaceship using the powerful gravity of the shell, but without causing the passengers to feel any acceleration. “An elevator ride would be more eventful,” Martire says.

That’s because the density of the shell, as well as the pressure it exerts on the interior, is controlled carefully, Fuchs tells Popular Mechanics. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, according to the gravity-bound principles of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. So the bubble is designed such that observers within their local spacetime environment—inside the bubble—experience normal movement in time. Simultaneously, the bubble itself compresses the spacetime in front of the ship and expands it behind the ship, ferrying itself and the contained craft incredibly fast. The walls of the bubble generate the necessary momentum, akin to the momentum of balls rolling, Fuchs explains. “It’s the movement of the matter in the walls that actually creates the effect for passengers on the inside.”

Applied Physics

The computational model of the Alcubierre warp bubble, which requires negative energy to reach light speed and even surpass it. Negative energy is a mathematical concept, not a real type of energy that obeys the laws of physics, so this traditional model of warp drives remains firmly in the hypothetical realm. The image was created on Applied Physics’ Warp Factory.

new warp drive bubble model blue with white ring

Applied Physics

The computational model of a stable, constant velocity warp bubble, designed with “positive mass” and “positive energy” to avoid violating the laws of physics. Passengers would ride within a ship inside the bubble and reach subluminal (less than light) speeds. The Applied Physics team’s new research created this hypothetical model using the Warp Factory software toolkit.

Building on its 2021 paper published in Classical and Quantum Gravity—which details the same researchers’ earlier work on physical warp drives—the team was able to model the complexity of the system using its own computational program, Warp Factory. This toolkit for modeling warp drive spacetimes allows researchers to evaluate Einstein’s field equations and compute the energy conditions required for various warp drive geometries. Anyone can download and use it for free. These experiments led to what Fuchs calls a mini model, the first general model of a positive-energy warp drive. Their past work also demonstrated that the amount of energy a warp bubble requires depends on the shape of the bubble; for example, the flatter the bubble in the direction of travel, the less energy it needs.

☄️ DID YOU KNOW? People have been imagining traveling as fast as light for nearly a century, if not longer. The 1931 novel Islands of Space by John W. Campbell mentions a “warp” method in the context of superluminal space travel.

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This latest advancement suggests fresh possibilities for studying warp travel design, Erik Lentz, Ph.D., tells Popular Mechanics. In his current position as a staff physicist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, Lentz contributes to research on dark matter detection and quantum information science research. His independent research in warp drive theory also aims to be grounded in conventional physics while reimagining the shape of warped space. The topic needs to overcome many practical hurdles, he says.

Controlling warp bubbles requires a great deal of coordination because they involve enormous amounts of matter and energy to keep the passengers safe and with a similar passage of time as the destination. “We could just as well engineer spacetime where time passes much differently inside [the passenger compartment] than outside. We could miss our appointment at Proxima Centauri if we aren’t careful,” Lentz says. “That is still a risk if we are traveling less than the speed of light.” Communication between people inside the bubble and outside could also become distorted as it passes through the curvature of warped space, he adds.

While Applied Physics’ current solution requires a warp drive that travels below the speed of light, the model still needs to plug in a mass equivalent to about two Jupiters. Otherwise, it will never achieve the gravitational force and momentum high enough to cause a meaningful warp effect. But no one knows what the source of this mass could be—not yet, at least. Some research suggests that if we could somehow harness dark matter, we could use it for light-speed travel, but Fuchs and Martire are doubtful, since it’s currently a big mystery (and an exotic particle).

Despite the many problems scientists still need to solve to build a working warp drive, the Applied Physics team claims its model should eventually get closer to light speed. And even if a feasible model remains below the speed of light, it’s a vast improvement over today’s technology. For example, traveling at even half the speed of light to Alpha Centauri would take nine years. In stark contrast, our fastest spacecraft, Voyager 1—currently traveling at 38,000 miles per hour—would take 75,000 years to reach our closest neighboring star system.

Of course, as you approach the actual speed of light, things get truly weird, according to the principles of Einstein’s special relativity. The mass of an object moving faster and faster would increase infinitely, eventually requiring an infinite amount of energy to maintain its speed.

“That’s the chief limitation and key challenge we have to overcome—how can we have all this matter in our [bubble], but not at such a scale that we can never even put it together?” Martire says. It’s possible the answer lies in condensed matter physics, he adds. This branch of physics deals particularly with the forces between atoms and electrons in matter. It has already proven fundamental to several of our current technologies, such as transistors, solid-state lasers, and magnetic storage media.

The other big issue is that current models allow a stable warp bubble, but only for a constant velocity. Scientists still need to figure out how to design an initial acceleration. On the other end of the journey, how will the ship slow down and stop? “It’s like trying to grasp the automobile for the first time,” Martire says. “We don’t have an engine just yet, but we see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Warp drive technology is at the stage of 1882 car technology, he says: when automobile travel was possible, but it still looked like a hard, hard problem.

The Applied Physics team believes future innovations in warp travel are inevitable. The general positive energy model is a first step. Besides, you don’t need to zoom at light speed to achieve distances that today are just a dream, Martire says. “Humanity is officially, mathematically, on an interstellar track.”

Headshot of Manasee Wagh

Before joining Popular Mechanics, Manasee Wagh worked as a newspaper reporter, a science journalist, a tech writer, and a computer engineer. She’s always looking for ways to combine the three greatest joys in her life: science, travel, and food.

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