Space

What would a warp-drive ship actually look like?

The IXS Enterprise design that takes into account current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
The IXS Enterprise design that takes into account current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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IXS Enterprise without the warp toruses (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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IXS Enterprise without the warp toruses (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
The renderings are based on current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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The renderings are based on current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
In the warp bubble, the ship rests in zero gravity (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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In the warp bubble, the ship rests in zero gravity (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
A warp drive ship could travel to Proxima Centauri in about 5 months (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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A warp drive ship could travel to Proxima Centauri in about 5 months (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
Service module of IXS Enterprise (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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Service module of IXS Enterprise (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
The thickness of the toruses allow the spacecraft to be smaller (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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The thickness of the toruses allow the spacecraft to be smaller (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
The IXS Enterprise design that takes into account current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
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The IXS Enterprise design that takes into account current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
An Alcubierre warp drive bubble (Image: NASA)
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An Alcubierre warp drive bubble (Image: NASA)

Artist Mark Rademaker has unveiled a set of concept images imagining what a spaceship capable of traveling to other stars in a matter of months would really look like. Although it may look like something from the next science fiction epic and is unlikely to lift off anytime soon, his IXS Enterprise design is actually based on some hard science.

Interstellar travel is one of the most frustrating buzzkills of the space age. Since launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft has traveled about 116 astronomical units (1.08 x 1010 mi, 1.7 x 1010 km). At that speed, it would take about 75,000 years for it to travel to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.3 light years from Earth – and it isn't even going in the right direction.

Science fiction is filled with stories where this annoying limit is avoided by equipping spaceships with warp drives, hyperdrives, and infinite improbability drives. According to current physics, those are pure fantasy because the speed of light can’t be exceeded. This isn't like the sound barrier that just needed good engineering to overcome. It’s sewn into the very manner in which the universe is stitched together. However, some scientists believe that there is a way around that iron-clad limit.

A warp drive ship could travel to Proxima Centauri in about 5 months (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
A warp drive ship could travel to Proxima Centauri in about 5 months (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)

The idea comes from the work published by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. His version of a warp drive is based on the observation that, though light can only travel at a maximum speed of 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/sec), spacetime itself has a theoretically unlimited speed. Indeed, many physicists believe that during the first seconds of the Big Bang, the universe expanded at some 30 billion times the speed of light.

The Alcubierre warp drive works by recreating this ancient expansion in the form of a localized bubble around a spaceship. Alcubierre reasoned that if he could form a torus of negative energy density around a spacecraft and push it in the right direction, this would compress space in front of it and expand space behind it. As a result, the ship could travel at many times the speed of light while the ship itself sits in zero gravity, meaning the crew don’t end up as a grease stain on the aft bulkhead from the acceleration.

Unfortunately, the original maths indicated that a torus the size of Jupiter would be needed, and you’d have to turn Jupiter itself into pure energy to power it. Worse, negative energy density violates a lot of physical limits itself and to create it requires forms of matter so exotic that their existence is largely hypothetical.

IXS Enterprise without the warp toruses (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
IXS Enterprise without the warp toruses (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)

In recent years, Dr Harold "Sonny" White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center has given the interstellar minded some cause for optimism by showing that even if the warp drive may not be possible, it may be much less impossible than previously thought. White looked at the equations and discovered that making the torus thicker, while reducing the space available for the ship, allowed the size of the torus to be greatly decreased, down to a width of 10 m (30 ft) for a ship traveling ten times the speed of light.

According to White, with such a setup, a ship could reach Alpha Centauri in a little over five months, and oscillating the bubble around the craft reduces the stiffness of spacetime, making it easier to distort. This would reduce the amount of energy required by several orders of magnitude, making it possible to design a craft that, rather than being the size of Jupiter, is smaller than the Voyager 1 probe.

The renderings are based on current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)
The renderings are based on current physics (Image: Courtesy of Mark Rademaker)

Rademaker’s renderings reflect White’s new calculations. The toruses are thicker and, unlike the famous warp nacelles on Star Trek's Enterprise, their design is the true function of hurling the craft between the stars. Also, the craft, which is divided into command and service modules, fits properly inside the warp bubble, so it won’t be left behind when the captain gives the “engage” command. True, there are some fanciful bits, such as some streamlining, but if you’re going to shell out for an interstellar spacecraft, who wouldn't demand a flight deck with a bit of dash?

So, when will we see this jump off the drawing board and into the final frontier? Certainly not soon, and perhaps never. Right now, White’s ideas can only be tested on special interferometers of the most exacting precision. Worse, the dependence of the warp on negative energy density is a fly the size of a blue whale in the ointment. While it can, under special circumstances, exist at a quantum level, in the classical physical world that our ship must travel through, it cannot exist except as a property of some form of matter so exotic that it can barely be said to be capable of existing in our universe.

Still, it doesn't hurt to dream.

Sources: Mark Rademaker, NASA (PDF) via Io9

25 comments
Brian M
Alternative way of travelling 'faster than light' might be more related to string theory and popping into a different dimension where such limits don't exist - Although not sure how living creatures would survive the journey, but we do some how manage to survive the daily commute into work, so anything is possible!
iperov
"faster than light" is incorrect term. In compressed tunnel of space you will move faster than outside light, but inside light will move faster than you.
XBones-Chief
We need to be working on collision sensors, shipping lanes, survey sensors, shielding and a host of other things before we warp.
Dave Brumley
Mr. Rademaker has done an excellent job of making fine art of hard science. It is very impressive work.
Leithauser
There has been a lot of talk that this ship still cannot go faster than the speed of light for various reasons. However, even if it is constrained to 99% of the speed of light, it would still be a major advance in space travel. Imagine going to Mars in 5 minutes. Colonization of the solar system would be very possible. Imagine a family living on Mars that could still pop back to Earth to visit Grandma on the weekend. Scientific probes to other solar systems would be as possible as our current probes to our nearest planets.
Renegade
Just build it out of unobtainium. Sheesh, people!
dr. james willingham
Yesterday, I thought I had logged in and written a comment. Today it is absent. The Warp Drive sounds good, especially after Dr. Alcubierre's theory in '94. Only problem is that Ben Rich, late head of the Skunk Works at Lockheedm declared to the graduating class of UCLA in '93, "We already have the means to travel to the stars..." Duh? And flying saucers were around in the late 40s and early fifties. Three were seen by workers in a cotton field in Arkansas. They were about a thousand feet high, one above the other. Only strange thing about the whole deal is that one of the viewers did not say a word about the whole affair, a man who had been a member of Military Intelligence during World War II. Not a single word. Talk about strange. O yes the speed of those things along with their right angle turns at terrible speeds suggest some kind of warp bubble. Whatever happened to Americans power of observation
StWils
It has only been some 80 to 90 years since Louis Bleriot, the Englishman-whose-name I cannot recall, then, the Wright brothers all flew their crummy little lawn chairs-with-crappy-lawnmower engines for a few hundred feet apiece. We now span the planet, soon there will be a very expensive way to see the curve of the earth, the ISS is still in service, etc. So maybe this warp drive and negative energy stuff justs needs some fermentation time. Too bad Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and others are not here to see their dreams emerge into firstlight.
RichardU
I want one.....now. How cool is this.
JonathanPDX
"...those are pure fantasy because the speed of light can’t be exceeded." It cannot be exceeded using *known* physics. Who's to say we don't make a breakthrough in our understanding of how the Universe works, enabling us to do so much more than we're currently limited to? That's the nice thing about science - it doesn't (or it shouldn't) stop seeking higher physical laws and greater truths.