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What Is A Warp Drive?

What is a warp drive?


What Is A Warp Drive?

Warp drives, commonly used in science fiction, are propulsion systems which allow spacecraft to travel faster than light.

The most notable usage of a warp drive is in the iconic science fiction show “Star Trek”. In the Star Trek universe, they’re used as a plot tool which allows the characters to explore galaxy.

Ships equipped with these ‘space engines’ can ferry people around the galaxy, deliver cargo between stars, or can even be used as devastating tools of war. Interest in the subject caused one reader to ask, “What is a warp drive and how do they work”?

Could a Star Trek warp drive ever cross the boundary from science fiction into science fact?

What Are Warp Drives?

Most versions of the warp drive use a loophole in general relativity to circumvent the universe’s ultimate speed limit – the speed of light.

As you (or anything else with mass) accelerate towards the speed of light, more and more energy is required to accelerate faster. Because of this exponential increase in the energy requirements, to accelerate just a single electron to the speed of light would require more energy/matter than exists in the entire universe. That’s why it’s called the ultimate speed limit.

A warp drive gets around the problem by not accelerating at all, and instead, manipulates the region of spacetime around the craft. You cannot accelerate anything with mass to the speed of light, but spacetime itself has no mass, and is not bound by this ultimate speed limit under general relativity. In fact, we believe that spacetime has already been ‘warped’ faster than light once before – during the resulting ‘cosmic inflation’ that took place just moments after the big bang.

How Does A Warp Drive Work?

AlcubierreThe way a warp drive operates is relatively easy to visualize. It simply compresses the spacetime in front of the ship, and expands the spacetime behind it – like a surfer riding a wave of water.

This compression and expansion creates a ‘wave’ of spacetime that a ship could ride on. Since the ship isn’t moving at all, and is instead surfing this “spacetime wave” (which is now moving much faster than the speed of light), general relativity remains intact and time dilation is non-existent.

Problems With Warp Drives

How it manipulates spacetime to create the wave is where major problems arise. The first versions of the warp drive (Alcubierre’s warp drive) call for theoretical exotic matter and ‘negative energy’ which may or may not exist, and requires a spacecraft to harness the matter/energy equivalent of something the size of Jupiter.

Current Status Of Warp Drives

With the recent advances in theoretical physics and string theory, researchers (Dr. Gerald Cleaver & Dr. Richard Obousy) have calculated how a warp drive could work under M-theory – and it brings some good news. While still far beyond our level of technology, a FTL warp drive becomes a bit more plausible as the requirements become much more manageable by focusing on the physics of quantum field theory, instead of general relativity.

They worked out that under string theory, a warp drive would no longer require exotic matter, and the required energy would be roughly 100kg of antimatter (1019J) to warp the space around a ship the size of the space shuttle. Their version of the warp drive manipulates spacetime by shrinking and expanding the tiny, curled up, subatomic spacial dimensions that theoretically exist in string theory. Their version creates the exact same spacetime wave described above.

Warp Speed Limit

Interestingly enough, there is a limit to how much spacetime can be warped under M-theory. These physicists found that the ultimate warp speed limit (for an Alcubierre warp drive) is 1032C – or roughly 3.3 trillion trillion light years per second. Reaching this speed would require an incomprehensible 1031J of energy. However, if you could travel at that speed, you would be able to reach the edge of the visible universe (14 billion light years) in 4.4 femtoseconds flat.

Visualization of the Warp Drive

Richard Obousy, Gerald Cleaver (2008). “Warp Drive: A New Approach”. arXiv:0712.1649
Alcubierre, Miguel (1994). “The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity”. L73–L77. arXiv:gr-qc/0009013
Broeck, Chris Van Den (1999). “A ‘warp drive’ with more reasonable total energy requirements”. arXiv:gr-qc/9905084
Ideas Based On What We’d Like To Achieve“. NASA



  1. bc1

    May 7, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Interesting. . . but what do we need to do if we need to go faster? *lol*

  2. tazewell delaney

    May 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Einsteinian hypothesis is that the universe is packed with ‘worm holes.’ and according him, these are analogous to origami and flatten space time: put foot in here’ instantaneously comes out any-when, anywhere.

    the mad scientists of the CERN hadron super-collider, somehow containing 7x the core of our sun’s heat? are already creating big bangs. they will soon create mini-big-bangs and think also wormholes. get this, think they can open inter-dimensional doorways! that will sure expand our war fronts, eh?

  3. Zerox

    July 25, 2013 at 5:05 am

    Well, if they travel faster than light how do they know they won’t collide with something? Since they can’t get the information (“light is slower” than them) of the actual state of the place they are traveling to/through, it’s like running blind in a labyrinth.

    • Debatable

      March 13, 2014 at 5:09 am

      The wave of spacetime around the ship is bending not only time but also matter, you would be able to move any object in your way right around the ship, drilling through matter at incredible rates would mean you’d never run into anything.

  4. Holifuk

    July 30, 2013 at 5:12 am

    You’ll need the spice to evade them, of course.

  5. johnskeller

    January 5, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    The edge of the observable universe is more like 46 billion light years because, as you pointed out, the universe expanded faster than light speed during inflation.

  6. PocketGopher

    January 23, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Would a vehicle traveling using a warp drive be visible or leave any trace of its presence?

    • DrPsycho

      December 7, 2016 at 2:45 am

      The fact that it’s moving at speeds faster than light would make it virtually impossible for the human eye to capture or trace its flight path.

    • Pedro_Martini

      February 13, 2017 at 2:04 pm

      Yeah, it would create a burst of energy comparable to vacuum decay that would vapourise any and all structures within a couple light years radius of wherever the craft braked

  7. GrumpyViking

    February 2, 2017 at 7:59 am

    I’m not sure the exact point where the math is going wrong here, but 1032C is only that, 1032 times the speed of light. Which translates into 1032 light years a year. So you’re looking at crossing our galaxy, tip to tip, in nearly 97 years. That’s far better than sublight, but nowhere near the number the article suggests. I have no idea where that number came from, but it would be nice to be able to go that fast.

    Second, 1031J? That’s a trivial amount of energy. The smallest fission reactor in the United States outputs 508 MW of electrical power. That’s effectively 508,000,000 joules per second. I’d wager they either botched the number, meant to put, say, petajoules or something, or intended an entirely different unit.

    • BreathingAndFineDining

      May 18, 2017 at 7:47 pm

      Not sure if you read it wrong, but it’s 10 to the power of 32 C, and 10 to the 31 J.

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