How Warp Engine Approaches Star Trek’s Magical Technology

How Warp Engine Approaches Star Trek's Magical Technology

Thanks to the Warp Engine, the Star Trek Enterprise spaceship races across the unimaginably vast universe.

He goes carelessly, in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. When Captain Jean-Luc Picard gives the command to the viewer it is very familiar”betrothed!The surrounding stars extend into the Enterprise’s spaceships and lines at warp speeds into the depths of the universe, faster than light.

The warp drive is a charming futuristic technology from Star TrekUniverse, which since its first episode in 1966 includes ten – soon eleven – television series and thirteen feature films. And in all those series and movies, characters who carry spaceships explore the universe, travel from planet to planet and communicate with a crew of aliens.

‘When I was a kid I was huge Star Treksays physicist Eric Lintz, of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the US. There he researches esoteric physics phenomena like dark matter and quantum information, but type his name into Google and the first research proposal related to the research he does in his spare time: the convolution engine.

As I get older, I realize that not everything matters Star Trek It will really exist,” he says. “But the torsion engine will not leave me.” Shortly after the first coronavirus shutdown, this resulted in a professional publication that will serve as a springboard for a wonderful acceleration in our knowledge of this imaginative futuristic engine.

strange substance

That of all technologies Star Trek Not surprisingly, the torsion engine attracts attention. Without it, the story would be impossible. The universe is strange, unimaginable, insanely large. Even if you want to “only” visit the next star, the immense cosmic distances create an almost impenetrable barrier.

This next star is Proxima Centauri, 4.5 light years away, a distance that takes 4.5 light years. Light flies at full cosmic speed, so any other method takes longer. With the fastest space probe ever built, the long journey through the interstellar void would take nearly eight thousand years. from, as in Star Trek, wants to explore our entire galaxy (diameter: 105 thousand light-years, containing an estimated one hundred thousand million stars), and then faces an impossible task.

So it makes sense that science fiction makers are looking for a way out. The most popular solution? Don’t fly too fast – too fast that light is physically impossible – but shorten the distance. The torsion engine does this by juggling space and time. Imagination, of course. Until the physicist Miguel Alcubierre suddenly realized at the end of the last century that such an engine was really possible.

less distance

In 1994, Alcubierre watched an episode of next generation While he was doing his PhD research on hitherto unknown corners of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, where heavy masses can curve space and time. And so Alcubierre picked up a scrap of paper, did the calculations and laid the foundation for an article that appeared in the trade magazine later that year. Classical and quantum gravity.

In it, he describes how you can compress space and time in front of a spacecraft and stretch it back behind the ship, so that you have to travel a much smaller distance to the desired destination safely trapped in what he calls a torsion bubble.

Building the Alcubierre engine in practice is very difficult. Space can’t be curved that forcefully with “normal” mass, but it must be done with exotic matter, which has negative gravity. We don’t know that yet. It turns the torsion engine into something Star TrekA fan may dream about it, but this is not possible in any practical sense at the moment.

Dozens of Warp Engine publications would follow in the following decades. These also remained theoretical exercises, thought experiments that manipulated the formulations of the theory of relativity, in search of new insights. But the need for the foreign matter remained. Until now.


“I first read Alcubierre’s professional article when I was a teenager,” says Lintz. “I found her fascinating, although I didn’t understand much about her at the time.” Lintz continued to read warp drive publications long after he worked as a physicist. And when he had some time to spare during the lockdown months, he’s back to his old charm. Then I realized that everyone had overlooked something.

“In his article, Alcubierre investigated the simplest possible solution to the formulations of the theory of relativity,” says Lintz. This solution resulted in the Alcubierre Engine, a warp bubble powered by a massive amount of negative gravity. “It was surprising that mass was not physically present in places where the curvature of space should be greatest.”

Alcubierre engine model.  The blue area represents a compressed area, while the red area represents an extended area.  Statue of Harold White / NASA

Alcubierre engine model. The blue area represents a compressed area, while the red area represents an extended area.Harold White/NASA photo

Lentz decided to try some of the more unusual mathematics and saw that he could also solve formulas with it. The main difference? In the torsion bubble obtained by eyeliner, the mass was in the places where the curvature was greatest. And much more important: you can make his bubble with ordinary everyday things. He didn’t need an ounce of Stranger Things. “I was particularly surprised that no one had tried this before.”

light distortion play

Anyone in a warp bubble à la Lentz doesn’t see the striped stars from a spaceship window Star Trek. In Alcubierre’s torsion bubble, you can actually see the stars deforming. And in your solution the distortion is more complex, which is the spacetime curves with a vertex here and a valley there. I’ve never calculated exactly what this shape looks like, but it produces a complex game of light distortion.

Although the Lentz engine was already more practical than the Alcubierre engine, you still needed a lot of mass for it. But this might also be better, as cosmologist Lavinia Heisenberg (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) has chimed in with the idea and wrote a follow-up article. In it I showed that the Lentz engine also operates with a lower mass. Enough mass a thousand times smaller than the Sun. That’s still a huge amount of kilos, but it nonetheless fueled hope that the torsion engine would one day, in Star TrekLike the future, it can truly exist.

Lentz also wasn’t the only one who started fiddling with warp engines during lockdown. Physicist Alexei Bobrick and businessman Gianni Martier published an article around the same time in the same journal that went a little further than Lintz. They calculated that a torsion engine would need no foreign matter if it did not fly faster than light. Or, more precisely, when you don’t shorten the distance so much that you reach your destination before a beam of light arrives.

In addition, they revealed a new problem. According to them, a spaceship, even if it is neatly embedded in a warp bubble, will not move on its own. So even in a warp bubble you need a drive. However, this turns out to be so difficult that you cannot – effectively – break the speed of light, they wrote. A practical problem that Lintz believes will prove solvable in the future.

storm of attention

The publications by Lintz and Bobrick led to a storm of interest, especially in the United States. From popular science media such as Scientific American in a Physicist To tabloids such as New York PostSuddenly everyone seemed to be talking about warp drives. On a reddit discussion forum, a thread about Lentz’s research received nearly three thousand responses. “I allowed myself for a while to think we were on schedule for the Zefram Cochran flight, and for a moment I was so happy,” said one commenter. Star TrekCannon discovered the warp drive in 2063. Another wrote “Who feels like they were born 300 years ago?”

Opinions are divided as to whether it will someday happen in 2063, three hundred years from now, or later. Three physicists believe that every warp engine, including the Lintz one, violates an unwritten power rule, they wrote recently in an introductory publication. Incidentally, Lintz believes that his colleagues’ criticism of his idea does not apply.

For now, anyone can continue to dream that the door to it The final frontier, Like Star Trek You say so beautifully, ever deviates. That we will finally cross that last threshold in the deep universe, and travel to the distant worlds and alien civilizations that the stories have promised us.

Did researchers ‘accidentally’ create a real bubble warp in the lab?

Then there is this. The site appeared at the beginning of December extraction Suddenly news broke that Harold White, affiliated with NASA, had produced a real bubble warp in the lab. “Scientists accidentally discovered the world’s first warp bubble,” read the headline that flew across the internet at lightning speed. “What we discovered is a real, albeit modest, warp bubble,” the site’s discoverer quoted White as saying.

But physicists who delved into the basic science article concluded that it does not support this conclusion. “I wrote a book on warp drives and no, we didn’t accidentally create the warp bubble,” the headline reads on a coin by astronomer and author Ethan Siegel.

“This is theoretical research, so no real physics bubble warp has been created,” says physicist Eric Lintz, who is interested in White’s work. “It seems very difficult to do what they describe in the article.”

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