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Space-Time Origami Engine of Dreams
September 17, 2012 6:58 AM   Subscribe

In 1994, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a scheme for virtual faster than light travel using a real-world analog to the familiar science fiction trope known as "Warp Drive." The basic premise exploited certain space-time warping effects predicted by General Relativity to fold space-time, theoretically allowing a specially designed space craft to reach distant destinations effectively at FTL speeds without actually having to accelerate to light speed or beyond at all. There was, however, at least one major problem with the proposal: The math suggested it would require as much energy as the mass of the planet Jupiter to power the thing. But according to newer calculations based on a modified version of Alcubierre's original proposal, warp speed travel may now theoretically be within reach (warning: eyeball-gouging Space.com link), requiring drastically less energy than originally thought. Of course, not everyone's convinced there's anything to see here. And even so, prohibitive energy input requirements may not be the only serious challenge facing the development of real-world warp drive technology, so don't go packing your bags for that long overdue vacation to Risa just yet.
posted by saulgoodman (73 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
I vote GRB 090423 or JKCS041.

Or a more modest target: Bruderheim, AB.
posted by mazola at 7:06 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


And the best part is we wouldn't need a clumsy and internally inconsistent stardating scheme.
posted by AugieAugustus at 7:06 AM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


"The people of your planet once believed their world was flat. Columbus proved it was round. They said the sound barrier could never be broken. [shrugs] It was broken. They said warp speed could not be achieved."

-- Spock's brother, Sybok
posted by steinsaltz at 7:07 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Columbus proved it was round.

*sigh*
posted by kmz at 7:11 AM on September 17, 2012 [61 favorites]


Boy I wish NASA got more money...
posted by DynamiteToast at 7:12 AM on September 17, 2012


Look, you can't expect an alien to have complete command over the minutiae of a minor world's history.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:14 AM on September 17, 2012 [15 favorites]


Give him a break, he is Vulcan and that is ancient Earth history.

An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind.

So tell me of this exotic matter.
posted by Atreides at 7:14 AM on September 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


Some things can't be fast tracked.
posted by de at 7:15 AM on September 17, 2012


Not to mention steering the damn thing. You'd have to invent sort of mass sensor like Larry Niven used in his Known Space series.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 7:20 AM on September 17, 2012


Thanks to that space.com link, I've got an officially licensed Starship Enterprise Pizza Cutter on the way.
posted by colie at 7:23 AM on September 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sagan's Law suggests a sufficiently intelligence species would already have invented this, in which case we might have already been visited by them.

Unless they really don't want to talk to us, which I admit is more than possible.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:25 AM on September 17, 2012


the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Voyager 1's mass is 722kg. Converted to energy that's equivalent to about 15,000 megatons of TNT. Another way of thinking about it is that the world's largest nuclear power plant produces 8.21 gigawatts. It would take that plant about 114 years to produce that much energy.

So, a big improvement over converting Jupiter into energy, I guess, but still impractical, especially given that there's no evidence that exotic matter exists. I believe the kind of exotic matter relevant to the Alcubierre drive is the sort that has negative mass.
posted by jedicus at 7:26 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


So tell me of this exotic matter.

It depends - I suspect that they mean neutronium, but it's not a well defined term and could just as easily be used to describe a dollop of fairy dust.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:29 AM on September 17, 2012


Sagan's Law suggests a sufficiently intelligence species would already have invented this, in which case we might have already been visited by them.

Maybe warp drive travel explains some of those random, inexplicable bursts of high energy radiation we're always detecting out there, since there's good reason to think you would expect to see that when this method of travel is used (per the i09 "killer downside" link). Probably not, but hell, who knows?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:29 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Look, you can't expect an alien to have complete command over the minutiae of a minor world's history.

Yeah, it's true, and there is a reason Sybok is the brother who turfed out of the Vulcan Science Academy.
posted by steinsaltz at 7:30 AM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


So tell me of this exotic matter.
posted by Atreides


He who controls it, controls the universe.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:30 AM on September 17, 2012 [31 favorites]


Yeah, if this were actually possible, we would have already bought it from the Ferengi.
posted by PapaLobo at 7:31 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


You'd have to invent sort of mass sensor like Larry Niven used in his Known Space series.

They already have one, it's called a thurible, and it...

sorry, that's a mass censer. Boy, is my face red.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:31 AM on September 17, 2012 [25 favorites]


By means of a warp drive that generates a warp bubble around the spaceship, the traveler can cover thousands of light years in a few hours.

But the lines through security will be just as slow.
posted by three blind mice at 7:32 AM on September 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


We're putting the cart before the horse, here. We have thrusters already; next step is impulse drive.
posted by dr_dank at 7:33 AM on September 17, 2012


jedicus: "Voyager 1's mass is 722kg. Converted to energy that's equivalent to about 15,000 megatons of TNT. Another way of thinking about it is that the world's largest nuclear power plant produces 8.21 gigawatts. It would take that plant about 114 years to produce that much energy."

Well, the Tsar Bomba was designed to produce a 100 MT yield (though it was dialed down to 50 for the test). That's a little over two orders of magnitude difference, which is not that much. The exotic matter may be a much larger problem, though.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:37 AM on September 17, 2012


Columbus proved it was round.

SHATNUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUR!!!!!!
 
posted by Herodios at 7:39 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have only briefly perused it and can't claim to be competent to speak to how it relates here, but this article seems to claim the exotic matter problem isn't necessarily a deal-breaker for some forms of virtual FTL travel/information transmission using this approach.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:41 AM on September 17, 2012


So don't go packing your bags for that long overdue vacation to Risa just yet.

Already packed; I'm counting on the LHC to accidentally produce the wormhole any day now.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:41 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sagan's Law suggests a sufficiently intelligence species would already have invented this, in which case we might have already been visited by them.

Unless they really don't want to talk to us, which I admit is more than possible.


The stars are redshifted because the HATE us!
 
posted by Herodios at 7:42 AM on September 17, 2012


Important point: if the physics are possible, the engineering doesn't matter that much. We don't need to build one, we just wait around for someone who has.
posted by ryanrs at 7:44 AM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Don't ever, ever quote Star Trek V to me.
posted by adamrice at 7:45 AM on September 17, 2012 [13 favorites]


Sagan's Law suggests a sufficiently intelligence species would already have invented this, in which case we might have already been visited by them.

I'm always amused by the human conceit that such advanced races would, of course!, visit us, as opposed to visiting other similarly-advanced worlds. Visiting the Earth, to such advanced races, would probably be akin to watching the cute monkeys at the zoo. Except the cute monkeys have nukes and rockets.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:46 AM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Unless that's what all the other species are thinking.
posted by Drexen at 7:46 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


prohibitive energy input requirements may not be the only serious challenge facing the development of real-world warp drive technology

So what you're saying is that scanners will not live in vain.
posted by penduluum at 7:51 AM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


On another note, now that I've finally gotten around to watching 4 straight seasons of Breaking Bad, I understand the OP's username. So there's that.
posted by spicynuts at 7:57 AM on September 17, 2012


Unless they really don't want to talk to us, which I admit is more than possible.

True dat. There are lots of days when I don't want to talk to any of my fellow humans. Especially around election time.


I'm always amused by the human conceit that such advanced races would, of course!, visit us, as opposed to visiting other similarly-advanced worlds. Visiting the Earth, to such advanced races, would probably be akin to watching the cute monkeys at the zoo. Except the cute monkeys have nukes and rockets.

It's the technological equivalent of flinging poo.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:58 AM on September 17, 2012


I would just remind the house that, fifty odd years on, we still haven't cracked useful fusion power.

The physics is the easy bit.
posted by Devonian at 8:02 AM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sagan's Law suggests a sufficiently intelligence species would already have invented this, in which case we might have already been visited by them.

Unless they really don't want to talk to us, which I admit is more than possible.


I like Neil deGrasse Tyson's analogy. We're, in one way of thinking, 2% different from chimps. Look what we do to them. A few study them, some eat them, lots destroy their habitat for material gain, and the vast majority don't really think of them. Now say there was some race 2% yet again more different in the direction we'd call "advanced." We probably don't want to deal with them. We'd better hope that advancement beyond what we've got going here means a much, much greater proportion of enlightened and/or compassionate individuals.

Go much beyond that and we're in microbe territory. I think the chances are good that we are to a "sufficiently advanced species" as Mars dust is to us.

For that matter, I think the chances are good that we wouldn't even recognize each other as something we'd know as "alive," but that's a whole other thing.
posted by cmoj at 8:04 AM on September 17, 2012 [13 favorites]


clvrmnky: "Unless they really don't want to talk to us, which I admit is more than possible."

According to the Roddenberry conjecture any sufficiently advanced civilization would have The Prime Directive.
posted by Bonzai at 8:04 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's also this other thing where once you get one of these babies up and goin', you can't steer it. That right there's kind of a deal-breaker for me.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 8:17 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


We look for things to make us go.
posted by rocket88 at 8:17 AM on September 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


Sagan's Law suggests a sufficiently intelligence species would already have invented this, in which case we might have already been visited by them.

Someone has to be first.

There's a David Brin short story whose premise is that "warp drives" are in fact incredibly easy to make, we could have done it 300 years ago but by accident we just never stumbled upon it. So, when the aliens arrive, their spaceship is surround by tanks and helicopters, missiles, nukes, etc. and they step out armed with blunderbusses and swords...
posted by ennui.bz at 8:17 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe every previous civilization that's tried warp accidentally erased themselves from history during their initial testing... No, but really, if you think about it, it's not even necessary to be that cynical to imagine why we don't have clear evidence of contact with an advanced space-faring species: I mean, what are the odds such a civilization would happen to pick our interstellar neighborhood to expend all that energy travelling to? The universe is a vast, vast place and our little corner of it is tiny. No matter what criteria our hypothetical warp-speed aliens used to pick destination locations, there'd be millions upon millions of points in space-time to choose from. In context, Earth--even the entire Milky Way-- is just a very tiny needle buried somewhere in a potentially infinite hay stack.

On another note, now that I've finally gotten around to watching 4 straight seasons of Breaking Bad, I understand the OP's username. So there's that.

Sorry, but no. My username came a couple years before the BB character (the show hadn't even started when I signed it up).

posted by saulgoodman at 8:18 AM on September 17, 2012


Ha...well I'm going to think of you as Saul from BB anyway. So there.
posted by spicynuts at 8:22 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two things:
First, I thought the problem with the Alcubierre drive was there was no way to stop it from inside the bubble, although I don't a reference for that.

Second, and I do have a reference for this, FTL travel implies Time Travel.

Of course, we first need exotic matter, which I think also allows for worm holes and more direct means of time travel. And remember that you can only travel back to the point you invented the time machine. And, of course, that you can't modify the past.
posted by Hactar at 8:23 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whether Alcubierre's concept bears fruit or not I am old enough to have been taught, in public school when I was very young, that it was impossible for men to fly to the moon, that there are no other planets in the galaxy, man powered flight was physically impossible and many other quaint scientific truths which we would laugh at today. Anything is impossible - until it's not.
posted by Podkayne of Pasadena at 8:29 AM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


The space.com article said that the drive could move at ten times C. That's amazing. It also isn't fast enough.

The first planet found so far to reside in the liquid-water zone is called Kepler 22b. It's 620 light years away. At ten times C that means a one-way trip is 62 years.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:29 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I thought the problem with the Alcubierre drive was there was no way to stop it from inside the bubble"

Trying to affect anything outside the bubble from inside the bubble is problematic given the sort of isolation that's created to make this thing work in the first place.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 8:31 AM on September 17, 2012


Trying to affect anything outside the bubble from inside the bubble is problematic given the sort of isolation that's created to make this thing work in the first place.

Oh politics, is there anything you can't teach us?
posted by Podkayne of Pasadena at 8:36 AM on September 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


There's a David Brin short story

Harry Turtledove. The story title is "The Road Not Taken". It can be found online if you google for it. He also wrote a sequel, "Herbig-Haro". Fun stuff, I've often thought it could be a good role-playing game world setting.
posted by fings at 8:37 AM on September 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Gliese 581g might still pan out. Only 22 light years.
posted by Iridic at 8:39 AM on September 17, 2012


A sufficiently advanced, non-warlike extraterrestrial intelligence has of course already enshrouded our solar system in a simulation shell so that we can look out into a universe that seems to be empty when instead it is teeming with life. Think of it as an isolation chamber to keep us safe, and to keep others safe from us. Any probes we send outward will be captured and instantaneously transformed into new components of the simulation so that we don't know any better. Assuming we don't blow ourselves up and transform our species into a relatively non-warlike state, able to co-exist with others (probably never), will the simulation gradually be reduced to just a force wall to let us grow accustomed to the real, populated universe, and then maybe eventually they'll let us out to play.

We're in a petri dish, see? It's the only explanation.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:40 AM on September 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


Already packed; I'm counting on the LHC to accidentally produce the wormhole any day now.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:41 AM on September 17


What did you pack?
posted by goethean at 8:45 AM on September 17, 2012


We don't need to build one, we just wait around for someone who has.

Women can't be as good as men in most jobs, because if they were, businesses would pay them as much.

That can't be a $20 bill on the sidewalk, because if it were, someone would have picked it up by now.

Kant's Categorical Imperative and the Prisoner's Dilemma, both of which any advanced alien race will also have discovered, say that we have to build one if we want to meet anyone. In fact, maybe that's what they are waiting for. The Galactic Federation doesn't want any defector members. You have to prove you'll pull your weight.
posted by DU at 8:55 AM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


s/weight/mass/
posted by DU at 8:55 AM on September 17, 2012


Harry Turtledove. The story title is "The Road Not Taken".

huh. I'm pretty sure there is a Brin version of the same story.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:56 AM on September 17, 2012


I think the chances are good that we wouldn't even recognize each other as something we'd know as "alive,"

I don't think the chances of that are that good and I'm always scoffing at people who say "well, you'll need to have water, OBVIOUSLY".

The rest of the universe has the same periodic table as us. Solar system evolution means the planets are going to fall into certain categories. Organic chemistry is rich in ways other chemistry is not. There are only going to be so many power sources that an anti-entropy machine can use (stellar fusion radiation by far being the most common).

Given roughly the same problem to solve with roughly the raw materials to work with, the basic solutions are not going to vary infinitely.
posted by DU at 9:03 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Already packed; I'm counting on the LHC to accidentally produce the wormhole any day now.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:41 AM on September 17

What did you pack?
posted by goethean at 10:45 AM on September 17 [+] [!]


A towel?
posted by nathan_teske at 9:08 AM on September 17, 2012 [12 favorites]


Knowing the human race, the first application of this will be to shift a city off the face of the Earth.

Without forewarning.
posted by Zed at 9:18 AM on September 17, 2012


People, you're forgetting the main reason they haven't contacted us: We're made out of meat.
posted by Hactar at 9:25 AM on September 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


Even if FTL indeed proves to be possible (and this doesn't seem like a slam-dunk case for it in the first place), isn't by far the most likely explanation as to why we haven't been "visited" by aliens the fact that the universe is really, really, enormously big and earth is, well, not?

(And yes, I am familiar with the argument that we have been sending out random, incredibly faint signals for a whole eyeblink's worth of comparative time.)
posted by kyrademon at 9:26 AM on September 17, 2012


seanmpuckett, sounds like you've read my first novel.
posted by Shadan7 at 9:29 AM on September 17, 2012


Knowing the human race, the first application of this will be to shift a city off the face of the Earth.

Ooh, ooh, I hope I get to ride Scranton!
posted by sonascope at 9:37 AM on September 17, 2012


ennui.bz: There's a David Brin short story whose premise is that "warp drives" are in fact incredibly easy to make, we could have done it 300 years ago but by accident we just never stumbled upon it. So, when the aliens arrive, their spaceship is surround by tanks and helicopters, missiles, nukes, etc. and they step out armed with blunderbusses and swords...
Standard mistake of believing in advances and technological inventions as one-off events. In fact, development tends to be more like hitting the bramble bush on the way down the hill - not inevitable, but damned likely, and impossible unless you're already halfway down the hill.

The Romans may have invented the battery, but they sure as hell didn't use them to a billionth of their potential - no motors, no memory devices, no light bulbs, no electromagnets, no spark gap lighters...
posted by IAmBroom at 9:50 AM on September 17, 2012


ennui, I was big on Brin and read most everything by him up until 2002, though I haven't read much of his work since then. I am not aware of any such story by him, but if you find one, let me know. I am 98% certain you were thinking about Harry Turtledove's story.
posted by fings at 9:56 AM on September 17, 2012


1. Exotic Matter
2. ????
3. FTL (aka "profit")
posted by blue_beetle at 10:11 AM on September 17, 2012


Everyone's talking about the sheer amounts of energy involved in the new Alcubierre variant, just 722KG of antimatter.... that is, indeed, an amount of power that humanity could conceivably generate.

But what they don't say is per how long. 722KG per what? Per second, per hour, per fortnight?

Instantaneous energy is just a single explosion, and it might take hundreds of thousands of these explosions to get to, say, Alpha Centauri. You could maybe get there in a couple of weeks, subjective, but if it takes a significant fraction of the total energy output of our Sun to do so, you're probably not going to see very many trips.
posted by Malor at 10:14 AM on September 17, 2012


Malor, space travel isn't so much a power-problem as a net-energy problem. For instance, escape velocity = energy: E = 1/2 m v^2.

Assuming that one can stay in FTL travel without continuous expenditures, it really is an energy issue, not a per-unit-time issue.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:26 AM on September 17, 2012


For that matter, I think the chances are good that we wouldn't even recognize each other as something we'd know as "alive," but that's a whole other thing.

Reminds me of part of the plot of Orson Scott Card's Speaker For The Dead.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:16 PM on September 17, 2012


ennui, I was big on Brin and read most everything by him up until 2002, though I haven't read much of his work since then. I am not aware of any such story by him, but if you find one, let me know. I am 98% certain you were thinking about Harry Turtledove's story.

I'm 100% certain the story I read is different from the Turtledove one: it started in exactly the same fashion but had an extended denouement where the mini-galactic empire started by earth due to it's accidental technological advantage had begun to decline into... ennui. But, after 23 years I'm not certain it's by Brin... it might have been in the "River of Time" short story collection but it might have been a different author altogether likely ripping off turtledove. oh well.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:45 PM on September 17, 2012


Well, it's been 70 million years since last we tweaked that place. The results are really very disappointing. I thought we were on to something when they came up with Star Trek, the shatnerthing's version. That's not very much to show for all the trouble we went through.

Mmm. Yes, but those little buggies they sent to Sol-4 were cute.

Yeah. Tasty, too.

I don't suppose you want to send them a message, do you?

Heck no. These guys are way too crazy.

I agree. Okay, let's boogie over to the heliopause and cue up another comet. This time we should use a bigger one, and we'll see what happens with two moons. Those cockroaches show some promise.

Shouldn't we do something about that brucewillis guy first?

Nah. Let him take his best shot.
posted by mule98J at 1:07 PM on September 17, 2012


the mini-galactic empire started by earth due to it's accidental technological advantage had begun to decline into... ennui.

I think that could be the other Turtledove story I mentioned, "Herbig-Haro". It's set twelve hundred years after first contact, and after the human empire had collapsed. (I'm not going to link here, but google tells me both stories are currently on pastebin.)
posted by fings at 2:58 PM on September 17, 2012


warp speed travel may now theoretically be within reach

Sure. Hold your breath.
posted by Twang at 3:34 PM on September 17, 2012


gizmodo:
There was only one problem with all this: where does the energy come from? While we knew that warp drives were theoretically possible, physicists have always argued that they would require a ball of exotic matter the size of Jupiter to power it. Clearly, that was not practical. But thankfully, Dr. White has found a solution that changes the game completely.

The Eagleworks team has discovered that the energy requirements are much lower than previously thought. If they optimize the warp bubble thickness and "oscillate its intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time," they would be able to reduce the amount of fuel to manageable amount: instead of a Jupiter-sized ball of exotic matter, you will only need 500 kilograms to "send a 10-meter bubble (32.8 feet) at an effective velocity of 10c."
This may all turn out to be wishful-thinking bollocks, but the older I get, the more I want to have an extra century or so of life, just to see what happens.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:26 PM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


You don't have to go faster than light. If you can go as fast as light you can arrive at wherever you are going instantly, at least as far as you are concerned.

Also, what if going faster than light reverses the time dilation effect such that you show up as soon as you like, but yourself are extra old when you arrive.
posted by wobh at 7:56 PM on September 17, 2012


Beyond This Point There Be Cenobites.
posted by homunculus at 12:36 AM on September 18, 2012


So tell me of this exotic matter.

You ask it where it's from; it says 'Brooklyn'; you say 'No, I mean where are you really from?'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:52 AM on September 18, 2012


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