On Friday, I got a call from Mooney Goes Wild , the daily science programme on Irish national radio, asking me to participate in an interview concerning NASA’s recent interest in creating a WARP drive for space travel. I’d heard this interesting story over Christmas and I like science on the radio, so it was fun to look up a few details and take part in the discussion.
Starship Enterprise of Star Trek uses a warp drive to traverse the immense distances of outer space
The live interview took place that very afternoon, right in the middle of our College Exam Boards (those weighty meetings when lecturers come together with external examiners to decide which students pass and which don’t). Our current physics extern, Professor Peter Mitchell of UCD, taught me as a student, so we had fun discussing the NASA project over lunch.
In the event, the interview was very interesting; I thought the RTE panel of Olan Mc Gowan, Eanna ni Lamhna, Richard Collins and Terry Flanagan asked great questions and we all enjoyed ourselves. Below is the Q&A script I prepared in advance (I always run up a draft script as it helps me organize my thoughts and it provides interviewers with a jumping-off point). The panel’s questions went a good deal further, you can hear a podcast of the interview here.
Artist’s impression of the NASA experiment; the vacuum ring causes space behind the object to expand, propelling it forwards
We recently came across a story that NASA has begun work on the development of a WARP drive, a device that would allow spaceships to travel faster than light. Such an engine could in principle transport a spacecraft to the most distant stars in a matter of weeks, but seems the stuff of science fiction. We contacted Dr Cormac O Raifeartaigh, a physicist at Waterford Institute of Technology, to get his opinion on this story…
PANEL: First of all, what is a warp drive?
COR: It’s the word used for a hypothetical engine that could drive a spacecraft by distorting or ‘warping’ space. In principle, this could allow the ship to travel faster than the speed of light, taking a shortcut to reach remote galaxies in hours instead of millions of years! (The device turns up in science fiction in order to enable people to get from one galaxy to another without dying of old age on the way…even travelling to a nearby planet takes several years).
PANEL: How is it supposed to work? I thought faster-than-light travel was supposed to be impossible?
COR: That’s right. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, no material body can reach the speed of light. If it comes close to this speed, the body gets bigger, and heavier, and it cannot match the speed of something with no mass (light). There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this is exactly what happens, it’s amazing to see particles like protons accelerated at facilities like the Large Hadron Collider up to speeds like 99.99% of the speed of light, but never quite reaching nature’s speed limit.
PANEL: So, how does the warp drive work then ?
COR: Another prediction of relativity is that space and time are not fixed, but affected by motion and by gravity. For example, there is a huge amount of evidence that the space of our universe is continually expanding. In principle, a patch of space can move at any speed; if you could somehow warp a bubble of space around an object ( or spaceship), then that object would travel at the speed set by the distortion..
PANEL: Has this mad idea been around for a while?
COR: Yes,in principle. The problem is that the energy required to make that bubble of warped space is far greater than any energy available. What’s new is that physicist Harold White at NASA thinks he can reduce the energy required, with a clever design; the object (spaceship) is surrounded by a thin vacuum ring of a special shape that causes the space just behind the spaceship to expand, and just in front to contract; the difference propels the spaceship very fast indeed! Of course that’s just the theory..
PANEL: Do you think it will work?
COR: No, I doubt it, even with objects on the atomic scale. However, we will learn a lot by trying, there’s nothing wrong with the principle. For example, many cosmologists believe that our whole universe expanded at speeds far greater than light during the first instant (the theory of cosmic inflation), before settling down to today’s more sedate expansion. But as regards investment, I wouldn’t put any money in ‘warp drive’ shares just yet!