Thursday, August 21, 2008

A brief history of warp drives

A brief history of warp drives
By Roger Highfield

This form of warp propulsion is called an Alcubierre drive after Miguel Alcubierre, who stunned physicists when he set out the physics while studying at Cardiff University.

Alcubierre demonstrated in 1994 that if the fabric of space and time can be locally warped so that it expands behind a spacecraft and contracts in front of it, then the craft will be propelled along with the space it is in - in effect, riding the crest of the wave.

His ingenious idea was set back in 1997 Michael Pfenning and Larry Ford at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, did calculations that suggested that it needed far more than the entire energy content of the universe to work.

Fortunately, Dr Chris Van Den Broeck, then working at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, in 1999 resurrected Alcubierre's proposal.

The trick lies in using a strange form of warped space, involving a "bubble" with a large internal volume to carry a starship but a tiny surface area, a bit like Dr Who's Tardis.

Van Den Broeck used Pfenning and Ford's results to show that a bubble big enough to contain a starship could be formed using just a gram of suitable space-warping material: the Alcubierre drive had overcome this hurdle, though Dr Van Den Broeck said problems remain.

Warp drives are studied by physicists to test the limits of physics but they have been examined by Nasa's Breakthrough Propulsion Program and by the British Aerospace Project Greenglow.

So influential is Alcubierre's idea that it has even been referred to by the writers of Star Trek. While a doctoral physics student at California Institute of Technology in January of 2044, the inventor of Star Trek's warp drive, Zefram Cochrane studied the theories of Alcubierre and Richard Obousy, On April 5, 2063 at 11:15 AM local time, Cochrane made Earth's first warp flight, playing Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" during blast-off and dedicating the first flight to Alcubierre and Obousy.

No comments: