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John McCartney and Herald staff | jmccartney@heraldnet.com
Published: Thursday, June 19, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Warp-speed spaceship for NASA?

NASA engineer and physicist Harold White 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 mind-boggling.

“It does have some Sci-Fi features that might never transfer to a possible final design,” Rademaker said in an e-mail interview. “We wanted to have a decent image of a theory conforming Warp ship to motivate young people to pursue a STEM 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 more: “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, which was proposed in 1994 by physicist Miguel Alcubierre.

White's concept requires using large rings that surround the spacecraft. (To see some images of the starship, search “Washington Post” and “warp ship” online.)

“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 math can become a reality in the lab is an important first step.


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