This article was authored by Harold “Sonny” White and Catherine Ragin Williams Sure and is a submission of the Exotic Research Group of Icarus Interstellar.
Sure, the Red Planet or an asteroid are enticing destinations, but what if one day we wanted to go really, really far out? With the technology we have today, it’s not in the realm of possibility. But it could be … and the Eagleworks Laboratories at Johnson Space Center are doing the mathematics and physics required to find the answers that defy traditional Newtonian laws.
Enter: The space warp. It’s the same space, and the same standard of time, but if we can theoretically manipulate it for our purposes, interstellar flight could be an option on a future technology roadmap. The first question you might start with is, “How hard is interstellar flight?” The Voyager 1 spacecraft is sometimes lifted up as our first interstellar spacecraft. It’s not a very big fella—it’s just a little bit under a metric ton, and it’s been going on now for about 33 years, headed straight out away from our solar system about as fast as it can go. If you stuck a measuring stick out to it, it’s about 119 astronomical units (AU) away from the sun. (An AU is the distance from the sun to the Earth.) It’s one of the highest energy objects that’s been launched to date, and nothing that we’ve launched will pass it. But if you wanted to predict how long it would take to get to the nearest star system, like Alpha Centauri, it would take around 75,000 years to get there. In terms of our galactic neighborhood, Alpha Centauri is right around the corner at 4.3 light years (271,931 AUs), so 75,000 years would not be ideal—especially for a human crew. But if you threw a bunch of power and propulsion behind it, then what?
Back in the 1970s, the British Interplanetary Society looked into what it would take to send a robotic probe to reach Barnard’s Star, about 6 light years (or 380,000 AU) away, within 50 years. Oh, just a 54,000-thousand-metric-ton spacecraft—92 percent of which is fuel. And, if you’re curious, that mass is well over 100 times the mass of the International Space Station, which weighs in at 400 metric tons. That suggests we may need to look at some possible loopholes in physics to see if we can find other ways to make this problem a little bit more tractable.
The loopholes, amazingly, can be found in mathematical equations. Those equations are tested using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer. At JSC, Eagleworks has initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble. Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space time—a “Chicago pile” moment, as it were. Recall that December of 1942 saw the first demonstration of a controlled nuclear reaction that generated a whopping half watt. This existence proof was followed by the activation of a ~ four megawatt reactor in November of 1943. Existence proof for the practical application of a scientific idea can be a tipping point for technology development.
By harnessing the physics of cosmic inflation, future spaceships crafted to satisfy the laws of these mathematical equations may actually be able to get somewhere unthinkably fast—and without adverse effects. The math would allow you to go to Alpha Centauri in two weeks as measured by clocks here on Earth. So somebody’s clock aboard the spacecraft has the same rate of time as somebody in mission control here in Houston might have. There are no tidal forces inside the bubble, no undue issues, and the proper acceleration is zero. When you turn the field on, everybody doesn’t go slamming against the bulkhead, which would be a very short and sad trip.
When you think space warp, imagine raisins baking in bread. When you put dough in a pan there’s little raisins in the bread. As you cook the bread, the bread rises and those raisins move relative to one another. That’s the concept of inflation in a terrestrial perspective, except in astrophysics it’s just the actual physical space itself that’s changing characteristics. But for futuristic space travel, we aren’t going to be a passive player. We’re trying to do something locally so that we compress the space in front of us and expand the space behind us in such a way that allows us to go wherever we want to go, really fast, while observing the 11th commandment: “Thou shall not exceed the speed of light.”
What about the colossal energy requirements discussed in the literature? In the past, the literature has quoted Jupiter amounts of exotic matter/negative pressure necessary to implement a “useful” warp bubble, making the idea mostly of academic interest at best. However, sensitivity analysis started by White in 2011 and completed this year has shown that the energy requirements can be greatly reduced by first optimizing the warp bubble thickness, and further by oscillating the bubble intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time. The results, to be presented at the 2012 100 Year Starship Symposium in Houston, will discuss the findings in detail, but have yielded a reduction from Jupiter amount of exotic matter to an amount smaller than the Voyager 1 spacecraft (500kg) for a 10-meter bubble with an effective velocity of 10c, which is a handy improvement.
While we are trying to reach neighbors within our solar system for the time being, we cannot help it if visions of distant star systems exist in our daydreams. Perhaps a “Star Trek” experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.
Catherine Ragin Williams Sure: PR Specialist, JSC External Relations, Office of Communications and Public Affairs.
Daydreaming beyond the solar system with warp field mechanics