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Science Virtual Field Trip: Warp-Drive Space Travel

A common theme in science fiction is the possibility of space travel at super-high speeds (even approaching, or exceeding, the speed of light, which at 186,000 miles per second, is fast indeed). Spacecraft able to travel at such a speed would make interplanetary travel dramatically more feasible. (Locations in space are so distant that using traditional travel methods, it would take us years and years to arrive.)

warp speed science lesson The problem is that in a traditional spacecraft, passengers would be unable to withstand the incredible force and pressure resulting from such high speed.

Luckily, while we think of “space” and “time” as separate things, they in fact form a single “fabric” of space-time. In theory, this makes it possible to physically manipulate space-time in a way that would simply "transport" a spacecraft without requiring the kind of motion and acceleration that are involved in typical space travel.

Teach grade 8-12 students about the mind-boggling possibilities of this type of travel by sending them on a simulated field trip to space. Along the way, kids will learn about the “warp drive,” a proposed spacecraft component that would enable travel at speeds even faster than the speed of light.

1. Figure out how to manipulate space-time.

Physics prevents anything from moving faster than light. But in physics, there are loopholes—adjustments might be made in terms of how we deal with the constraints of physics. The Alcubierre warp drive, as proposed by Harold “Sonny” White of NASA's Johnson Space Center, would be able to manipulate (“warp” or bend) the fabric of space-time to transport a starship at light speed, without the ship really moving at all. While it’s true that everything is limited by the speed of light, space-time can be manipulated without limitations.

warp speed space travel
Arizona State University Physicist Lawrence Krauss simulates the warping of space-time.

All we’d need to warp space-time is a great deal of what physicists call “negative energy.” A “warp drive” is designed to create this kind of energy, and while scientists have not yet figured out precisely how it could be done, it is theoretically possible.

2. Design the spacecraft.

The spaceship would be roughly the shape of a football, which would be surrounded by a large, attached round ring. The ring would cause space-time to actually “warp” (bend) around the spaceship. The area in front of the spaceship would contract, with the area behind it constantly expanding.

The warp drive could be powered by a spaceship similar in size to NASA's 1977 Voyager 1 probe, and if the ring’s rotations could work off of the speed of its own energy production, the energy needed would be reduced gradually while traveling. How would this be possible? Our spaceship would theoretically remain in a bubble of space-time, as we’d be experiencing it. Exactly how fast could this spaceship get? It would effectively be able to travel at 10 times the speed of light.

White and his colleagues are experimenting with a miniature warp drive called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center. It creates a laser interferometer that instigates micro versions of space-time warps, altering space-time by one part in 10 million at that scale.

3. Imagine what it would look like.

Honestly, not a whole lot would be seen by the human eye while the spacecraft approached and reached light speed. A group of physics masters students at the University of Leicester showed that while approaching light speed, the light coming from the stars in front of White’s spaceship would be compressed by the limitations of the human eye. (While science-fiction movies typically depict trails of beaming light whizzing by, these are far from the reality of what our eyes would capture.)

The stars that brilliantly illuminate space would go dark. The faster White’s spaceship accelerates, the shorter the wavelengths would be. After entering immediate darkness, there would be the appearance of a small blue circle, then a bigger ultraviolet one.

What is this light? It’s cosmic microwave background radiation, or radiation left behind from the Big Bang. This radiation would show space travelers the glow of what many believe to be the beginnings of the Universe, presenting the light of the Big Bang as an orb that mirrors something like our Sun pushing through the sky on a foggy day.

4. Imagine what it would feel like.

And how would humans in the craft experience the passage of time, since they’d be inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all? Technically there’d be no sensation of acceleration—passengers wouldn’t even feel like they were moving at all. And time would pass more quickly than it does on Earth; a trip to the star Alpha Centauri would take about two weeks (whereas traveling as fast as we are now currently able, it would take tens of thousands of years).

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Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor
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