Nasa duo plans faster-than-light starship called Enterprise - of course

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 June, 2014, 10:29pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 1:38am

Harold White, an engineer and physicist at US space agency Nasa, announced a few years ago that he was working on a potentially groundbreaking idea that could allow space travel faster than the speed of light. Yes, as in Star Trek.

And now, to boldly go where no designer has gone before, Mark Rademaker - who is collaborating with White - has used computer-generated imagery to create a design concept for the "warp ship". They're calling it the IXS Enterprise.

The idea is that such a ship could allow travel to interstellar space in a matter of weeks rather than, say, centuries. And the science behind why it might be possible is truly mind-boggling especially considering that the speed of light is a touch over 299,792 kilometres per second..

"It does have some sci-fi features that might never transfer to a possible final design," Rademaker said "We wanted to have a decent image of a theory-conforming warp ship to motivate young people to pursue a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] career."

An oversimplified explanation is that the concept seeks to exploit a "loophole" in Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, a loophole that allows travel faster than the speed of light by expanding space-time behind the object and contracting space-time in front of it.

The online publication Io9 explains the concept more fully: "Essentially, the empty space behind a starship would be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction - passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration."

White, whose job title is "advanced propulsion theme lead for the Nasa Engineering Directorate", has calculated a plausible way to accomplish this using far less energy than required by the original theory proposed in 1994 by physicist Miguel Alcubierre.

White's concept requires using large rings that surround the spacecraft.

"The rings are most important as they will form the Warp bubble," Rademaker said. "The way they are designed now will reduce the energy requirement needed to form the bubble. (By quite a large factor.) Also we tried to fill up as much space within the rings, it's expensive to leave that open or unused."

So how quickly can this all become a reality? White said in an interview with Io9 that proving that the maths could become a reality in the lab was an important first step.