No, NASA did not accidentally invent the warp drive

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Space enthusiasts and sci-fi geeks everywhere (including those of us at redOrbit) pretty much broke the Internet on Thursday after online reports surfaced indicating that NASA scientists may have accidentally discovered warp-speed travel.

Those rumors stemmed from information posted on the forums regarding the EM Drive, a proposed method of interstellar vehicle propulsion that uses an electrical power source, has no moving parts, requires no material fuel and breaks the laws of physics.

In its report, Tech Times cites one forum post, which reads, “…this signature (the interference pattern) on the EmDrive looks just like what a warp bubble looks like. And the math behind the warp bubble apparently matches the interference pattern found in the EmDrive.”

Based on those comments, the website said, it was “entirely possible” that NASA has created a “stable warp bubble” that could make “faster-than-light travel” a possibility. Other online media outlets, including CNET, io9 and IFL Science (among many others), also posted versions of the report ranging from “the EM Drive works” to “ZOMG! Here comes warp speed!”

So could the rumors actually be true?

As cool as it would be to travel faster than the speed of light ala Star Trek, sadly, it does not look like we’ll be doing it anytime soon. If you visit the forums  and check out the discussion, you’ll see that it is rather complex and technical in nature – highly open to misinterpretation by those of us without a Ph.D. in our pocket.

The EM Drive, also known as the electromagnetic drive, could theoretically propel objects to near-relativistic speeds, according to io9, and NASA Eagleworks has apparently been working with the device to see if they can make it work in a space-like vacuum. If that the site reports is accurate, they may have done that, but there are still other obstacles to overcome.

For instance, the EM Drive appears to violate conventional physics and the law of conservation of momentum. It allegedly converts energy to thrust without requiring a propellant, doing so by firing microwaves into a closed container. Without the expulsion of propellant, however, there is nothing to offset the change in the spacecraft’s momentum when it accelerates.

If the technology could somehow be proven to work, it could provide faster, cheaper and more efficient travel throughout the solar system and beyond – and yes, in theory, it could potentially lead to the development of a warp drive. But for now, as NASA itself explained, while there are “some credible concepts in scientific literature, however it’s too soon to know if they are viable,” meaning that “traveling at the speed of light is simply imaginary at present.”

One expert’s take on the possibilities of warp speed

RedOrbit asked Robert J. Scherrer, a cosmologist, professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, about all of these wild rumors and about the possibility of warp-speed travel as a whole – and, well, try not to be too bummed out by his response.

“Here’s the bottom line.  We don’t really think faster-than-light travel is possible,” he said via email. “The lightspeed limit is written into the DNA of special relativity, and it is therefore part of the foundation of almost all of modern physics. And more importantly (since physics is at its core based on experimental evidence), we’ve never actually observed it.

“That’s why when an experimental group a few years ago claimed that maybe neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light, their claims were met with extraordinary scrutiny, and ultimately shown to be incorrect,” Scherrer added. “Now the  ‘warp drive’ proposed by Alcubierre, is a slightly different animal. It relies on the possibility of warping space-time, so that you get to go as fast as you want while not violating relativity.”

The problem with that, the professor explained, is that it mandates a violation of the “weak energy condition,” which stipulates that for every timelike vector field, the matter density that is observed by the corresponding onlookers must always be non-negative. While it isn’t possible to prove that the weak energy condition has to be satisfied, he said, strange, never-before-seen things (such as negative energy densities) start to happen if it isn’t.

“If there is a claim of faster-than-light travel using a table-top experiment, I would be instantly skeptical,” Scherrer concluded. “And sadly, I don’t think we’ll see faster-than-light travel in our lifetimes, or ever, for that matter. Sorry to be a wet blanket. I am always happy to be proven wrong.”

I think we all know how Han feels at this point.

You can read more of Dr. Scherrer’s comments on warp speed on his new blog “Cosmic Yarns”, which explores the intersection of science and science fiction.


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