Concept of the IXS Enterprise
Recently, a NASA physicist Harold G. White made headlines in the science and technology media by showcasing a 3-D artist's render of a "real life" warp drive starship (affectionately named the "I.X.S. Enterprise" - not sure what the "I.X.S." stands for). The starship model poposed is based on mathametical calculations that suggest that the Alcubierre warp drive could actually work!
In the 1990's, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre, mathematically demonstrated that a warp field could be created which could contract the space ahead of an object and expand the space behind said object, allowing the warping of space to effectively propel the object faster than the speed of light. The theory does not violate the "cosmic speed limit" imposed by relativity, since the object isn't being accelerated past the speed of light. Instead, the space around it is being manipulated to reduce the distance between the source and the destination by taking advantage of the fact that space itself is permeable and its motion is not constrained to the cosmic speed limit. Best of all: astronauts inside such a ship would not be subject to relativistic time dilation effects. A one-year trip for the astronauts would also be only one year for the people of earth!
One of Matt Jefferies' original concepts for Star Trek's starship Enterprise.
Alcubierre freely admitted that his ideas were inspired by concepts from Star Trek, and considering that no similar theory of warp propulsion existed at the time of Star Trek, the concept and designs of the show are surprisingly prophetic. Alcubierre's models were met with early excitement when they were first proposed, but examinations by other physicists exposed certain flaws that made the effect impractical for human space exploration and travel:
- The drive would require a tremendous amount of energy ranging from the equivalent of the total mass of Jupiter to the more mass than is contained in the observable universe! This, by itself, made the theory a non-starter.
- The drive also may not be steerable or controllable from within the ship.
- Also, there were concerns that a build-up of particles along the front of the bubble during travel would be shot forward when the drive slows down or stops, potentially destroying anything in its path (including the destination, whether it be a planet, another ship, or a space station).
- There were also concerns about whether Hawking radiation inside the bubble would destabilize the bubble and/or kill the crew.
NASA physicist Harold G White
These early concerns led many scientists to assume that warp drive (based on the Alcubierre equations) may forever be out of our reach.
But that hasn't stopped physicists from thinking about the possibility. In 2011, Harold White published a paper and gave lectures about how some of the variables of Alcubeirre's equations could be tweaked to make the drive much more feasible. Basically, by altering the size and placement of the engine rings, the energy required to generate the Alcubierre warp bubble can be substantially reduced. At certain sizes, the drive could require an energy source equivalent to the reactor used to power the Voyager space probes (which were launched in the 70s). White is currently undertaking experiments to show whether or not such a bubble could actually be created. The mathematical models are encouraging, but the experimental results are still inconclusive.
Earlier this year, White gave a lecture regarding his experiments in which he showed an artist's rendering of what a possible Alcubierre starship would look like if his hypothesis proves correct. The concept is inspired by one of Matt Jefferies' original designs for the starship Enterprise in the T.V. series Star Trek.
Don't get too excited though. The I.X.S. is far from being a "real life" starship, and is still very much just a conceptual model. Although White's math demonstrates that the Alcubierre drive could be made efficient and practical enough to be used in a starship using technology that exists today, his starship design seems to be lacking in several key practical, technical details:
- He doesn't outline the exact power source for the drive.
- He doesn't outline how the crew would operate the ship or live within it. Since the ship does not appear to rotate, it apparently cannot provide artificial gravity.
- The ship would likely have to be assembled in orbit, but White does not provide any details regarding the materials involved or the cost of construction and operation.
- As far as I know, he has not solved the problem of whether or not the ship will be steerable from the crew within.
So, for now, the I.X.S. Enterprise - as cool as it is - is merely science fiction.
Updated concept based on Dr. White's theoretical findings with inputs from Mike Okuda
(graphic designer for Star Trek: TNG
- Stark Trek: Enterprise