According to Dr. Harold White of NASA's advanced propulsion physics laboratory at Johnson Space Center, new calculations indicate that something similar to Star Trek's Warp Drive is "plausible and worth further investigation." And according to Dr. White, they plan on testing the feasibility of the idea in the laboratory.
One of the consequences of Einstein's theory of special relativity is that the speed of light effectively becomes a universal speed limit for moving objects. As an object approaches the speed of light freaky things start happening. Time slows down (dilation) and the object's mass approaches infinity since the energy which an object has due to its motion will add to its mass. At the speed of light (c), the object would have infinite mass. And since an object with infinite mass would be pretty damn hard for anyone to push, going the speed of light under those circumstances is nigh-impossible let alone going any faster.
The theories behind Warp Drive attempt to circumvent the limitation. While Einstein's limitations in special relativity would apply to an object attempting to go faster than the speed of light, nothing in general relativity forbids space itself from moving faster than light. In fact, Cosmic Inflation Theory says the universe did exactly that after the Big Bang, when for less than a second there was exponential expansion. This is the explanation for the "Horizon Problem" (i.e. why if nothing can go faster than light are the edges of the observable universe nearly 28 billion light years apart if the universe is only 14 billion years old?). The idea of Warp Drive is that manipulation of space can be used to move a ship from point A to point B faster than light.
From CBS News:
A warp drive to achieve faster-than-light travel -- a concept popularized in television's Star Trek -- may not be as unrealistic as once thought, scientists say. A warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship, taking advantage of a loophole in the laws of physics that prevent anything from moving faster than light. A concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy.NASA Eagleworks, a "skunkworks" operation at NASA's Johnson Space Center, will attempt a proof of concept. They have "initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble" using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer.
Now physicists say that adjustments can be made to the proposed warp drive that would enable it to run on significantly less energy, potentially bringing the idea back from the realm of science fiction into science.
"There is hope," [said] Harold "Sonny" White of NASA's Johnson Space Center... previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.
But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.
Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.
"The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation," White told SPACE.com. "The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab."
"We're trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million," White said.In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a metric for expanding the fabric of space behind an object into a bubble and shrinking space-time in front of the object. Since then there's been many objections and modifications to the idea, with this latest iteration claiming to bring down the energy requirement. However, the main tenets of the idea have stayed the same. A ship inside a Warp bubble would ride the warping of space around it like a surfboard riding a wave. Since the ship is stationary within the bubble, it effectively circumvents Einstein's speed limit & other side effects. There might not be a need for "inertial dampers" (except maybe when going into or coming out of Warp), no increase in mass, and there isn't any time dilation.
The Eagleworks team has discovered that the energy requirements are much lower than previously thought. If they optimize the warp bubble thickness and "oscillate its intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time," they would be able to reduce the amount of fuel to manageable amount: instead of a Jupiter-sized ball of exotic matter, you will only need 500 kilograms to "send a 10-meter bubble (32.8 feet) at an effective velocity of 10c."Of course, all of this is decades, if not centuries away from becoming a reality even if the tests bear out. Also, there are many other significant hurdles to overcome, even if the math is right. For one thing, the warp bubble necessary to create the effect would probably need something more than just regular unleaded gasoline. In fact, it would need something with a little bit more kick; exotic matter (i.e. matter with negative mass).
Ten c! That's ten times the speed of light, people (remember, the ship itself would not go faster than the speed of light. But effectively it will seem like it does).
That means that we would be able to visit Gliese 581g—a planet similar to Earth 20 light years away from our planet—in two years. Two years is nothing. It took Magellan three years to circumnavigate around our home planet—from August 1519 to September 1522.