For Science!
5 Faster-Than-Light Travel Methods and Their Plausibility

CJ Miozzi | 18 Jun 2014 15:00
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5. Warp Drive

Popularized by Star Trek, a warp drive distorts space around a ship while leaving the ship itself inside a "bubble" of normal space. The space in front of the ship is contracted, while the space behind it is expanded, and the ship "rides" the distortion wave at FTL speeds. Technically, it is not the ship that is moving, but rather space itself, which is how we avoid breaking any laws of physics.

Imagine a surfer slowly paddling back to shore. When a wave comes, it will lower the water level in front of him and raise the water level behind him, and he can ride the downward slope all the way to shore. Relative to the wave, the surfer isn't moving - he's staying between the crest and the trough, and it is instead the wave that is moving.

Surfing doesn't quite work like that, but it's a simplification that we can all visualize. In a similar manner to how a wave will distort water to propel a surfer, a warp drive will distort space to propel a ship.

Star Trek Warp

Is it plausible?

In 1994, the Alcubierre drive was proposed as a theoretical means of FTL travel and is based on a mathematical solution to equations within Einstein's general theory of relativity. Just like a warp drive, the Alcubierre drive would contract space in front of a spaceship and expand space behind it.

NASA has been actively researching this technology since 2012, and the lead researcher even worked with a 3D artist to develop a model of what a warp-capable ship might look like. As far as real-life FTL goes, warp is the current front-runner to becoming reality.


As far as real-life FTL travel goes, the fictional favorites can be found in Star Trek and Stargate: the warp drive, and wormholes. Both are theoretically possible; however, both require further scientific breakthroughs before practical testing can begin. In either case, we need to discover "exotic matter" - hypothetical particles with negative mass - to get these mechanisms to work. "Element zero" from the Mass Effect series, the rare material that is essential to FTL travel in that universe, doesn't quite fit the description, but the lore is at least scientifically sound in suggesting that some new, rare form of matter is required to make this technological leap.

The good news is that scientists don't believe this is a matter of if, but rather when. There will be a time in the future when a stately, bald man in uniform will sit back in a command chair and relay the order, "Engage."

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