Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About Warp Drive


Could we someday fire up a warp engine — and boldly go where no one has gone before?

The idea of navigating the universe at warp speed has tickled our collective imagination ever since Capt. James Tiberius Kirk first ordered his chief engineer to fire those interstellar engines in the original “Star Trek.”

It made planet-hopping a breeze. No more growing old on your way to Romulus. You could have breakfast on Talos IV and still make your afternoon yoga session on Vulcan.

So, can we have a warp drive please?

Back in 2015, NASA put it bluntly: “The bulk of scientific knowledge concludes that it’s impossible, especially when considering Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

“There are many ‘absurd’ theories that have become reality over the years of scientific research. But for the near future, warp drive remains a dream.”

But things have a funny way of coming back around to show creator Gene Roddenberry’s way of thinking. And today, the warp engine is being revisited as a potentially viable technology.

But before we boldly go there, we should get a quick understanding of the Roddenberry model. According to HowStuffWorks, the Enterprise’s warp engine relies on dilithium crystals, a substance as vital to space travel as it is fictional. Dilithium somehow keeps a lid on a volatile process inside a warp engine — matter-antimatter annihilation.

It’s like catching chaos itself by the tail. And you can’t hold it for very long. Hence the immortal words of chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: “If we keep this speed, we’ll blow up any minute now.”

The process results in a “warp field” — basically a protective sheath around the spaceship that keeps it safe while time and space bend around it.

We know you’ve got questions, Einstein. But this being 1960s sci-fi, let’s allow the suspension of disbelief. The whole idea is to beat the speed of light by folding space in order to bring your destination to you.

Of course, scientists aren’t in the habit of suspending disbelief. So for the longest time, the concept of a warp drive was summarily dismissed. But not by all.

Alcubierre’s folly

In 1994, Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggested that we might be able to tap into a similar matter-antimatter dynamic to build a real warp drive. His warp drive was essentially a football-shaped spacecraft encircled by a ring. The ring would be made of something-something — we don’t quite know what yet — and it would cause space and time to blur around the craft.

The result? As the video below details, our very own warp field, where space is crammed tight in front of the vessel, and expanded behind it.

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