Click here to view CMI's position on climate change.

Warp drive


Published: 14 February 2017 (GMT+10)

Gene Roddenberry’s classic sci-fi drama, Star Trek, made famous the warp drive, a theoretical concept whereby a spacecraft travels Faster Than Light (FTL).

wikimedia commonsStarTrekUSSEnterprise
Figure 1: In the Star Trek TV series and movies the starship USS Enterprise could travel faster than light by engaging its warp drive.

A ‘trekky’ enthusiast once told me that the warp speeds described on the television shows and in the movies may be calculated as follows. Warp factor w, from the original Star Trek series, means that the spacecraft travels at w³ times the canonical speed of light (c ≅ 300,000 km/s or 186,000 miles/s).3 Therefore warp factor w = 7 means the spacecraft travels at 7 = 343 c. It would be unusual to hear that the starship the USS Enterprise (see Figure 1) had exceeded warp factor 9, which is about 729 times the speed of light.

To travel even around the local neighbourhood of our galaxy warp factor 9 (from the original TV series) just won’t do it. The nearest star to our solar system is about four light-years away. So travelling at warp 9, you would take two days to get there. Not too bad. But what about going to other star systems?

To travel 50 light-years, which is a very small distance in the galaxy and which includes very few stars—only 64 sun-like stars—would take you 25 days at this speed. Within a distance of 100 light-years from Earth there are known to be only 512 stars of the same spectral class as our sun1 and very few of those might be candidates for a solar system that could potentially support life.2 So it would be much better to be able to travel 100 light-years quite quickly; but that would take you 50 days. However in the TV shows they often arrive in just a matter of hours.

Years later, the next TV series—Star Trek: the Next Generation—solved this problem by introducing a new formula that increased the warp speed in a highly non-linear fashion, such that a warp factor of 10 meant infinite speed across the galaxy. Thus distances were no longer a roadblock to get around the universe in the 40 minutes or less available in a TV episode. For example, warp factor w = 9.9999 is equal to nearly 200,000 c.3 At that speed you could hypothetically travel right across the galaxy in only six months.

Alcubierre Warp Drive

But that is all science-fiction. What about a real warp drive? In 1994, a Mexican physicist by the name of Miguel Alcubierre came up with a proposal for stretching the fabric of space-time in a way which would, theoretically, permit FTL travel.

Alcubierre found a theoretical solution of Einstein’s field equations producing what has been called Alcubierre Warp Drive. Needless to say it is a highly speculative mathematical model, which specifies how space, time and energy interact.

To put it simply, this method of space travel involves stretching the fabric of space-time in a wave which would (in theory) cause the space ahead of an object to contract while the space behind it would expand. An object inside this wave (i.e. a spaceship) would then be able to ride this region, known as a “warp bubble” of flat space.4

The spacecraft hypothetically generates the warp bubble in its bow wake and collapses it behind the craft as it travels through space-time. See Figure 2. The speed of light within the bubble remains the same speed of light, c. The spacecraft undergoes no local acceleration—no huge g-forces are experienced by the craft.5 Thus Captain James T. Kirk, or anyone else on board, would not spill his/her coffee even as they go to warp 9.9999.

But the idea of warp drive presents a few problems.

For one, there are no known methods to create such a warp bubble in a region of space that would not already contain one. Second, assuming there was a way to create such a bubble, there is not yet any known way of leaving once inside it.4

That’s a problem. Once you enter hyperspace, or “subspace” as they called it in the original Star Trek series, you are stuck there, never to leave it again. That would have been a good story for an episode in the series.

Figure 2: Visualization of a warp field, according to the Alcubierre Drive.

In 2012, NASA’s Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory (aka Eagleworks) even announced that they had begun conducting experiments to see if a “warp drive” was possible. The team lead scientist, Dr Harold Sonny White, described their work in a NASA paper titled Warp Field Mechanics 101. In 2013, White and members of Eagleworks published the results of their 19.6-second warp field test under vacuum conditions. These results, which were deemed to be inconclusive, were presented at the 2013 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress held in Dallas, Texas. I cannot find any report of any progress after that time.6

Real physical evidence also suggests that FTL space travel is impossible.7 It is a problem of energy, which is well understood by physicists. Alcubierre’s theory requires the use of large amounts of a never observed type of “exotic matter” that violates known physical laws. It is needed to produce a negative type of energy to fold space into the warp bubble. This hypothetical negative energy involves either tachyons (which travel faster than light speed) or a naked singularity (which is a black hole without the event horizon).

Still, one of the most dubious is Dr. Alcubierre himself. He listed a number of concerns, starting with the vast amounts of exotic matter that would be needed. “The warp drive on this ground alone is impossible,” he said. “At speeds larger than the speed of light, the front of the warp bubble cannot be reached by any signal from within the ship,” he said. “This does not just mean we can’t turn it off; it is much worse. It means we can’t even turn it on in the first place.”8

But even if such a drive could be developed it has some serious problems to overcome. When the spaceship reaches its destination it has to stop, and that’s when the problems begin. Metaphorically hell breaks loose!

Researchers from the University of Sydney have done some advanced crunching of numbers regarding the effects of FTL space travel via Alcubierre drive, taking into consideration the many types of cosmic particles that would be encountered along the way. Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team—led by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne—has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.

When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic—enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.9

Anyone waiting at the destination would be blasted into oblivion by a beam of gamma rays resulting from the extreme blue-shifted particles released from the forward region of the warp bubble as the spaceship comes out of warp drive. But this is all theoretical anyway.

Why even consider FTL travel?

The galaxy is enormous in size (about 100,000 light-years in diameter) and those who believe that life evolved on Earth see no distinction between our home planet and any other planet out there that might support life. Like many others, Gene Roddenberry imagined a universe full of creatures that have evolved along different evolutionary paths, producing all sorts of strange creatures not seen on Earth. Among them are many different forms of alien intelligent life.

There are those who imagine either that mankind will one day travel out there and meet intelligent aliens, like Klingons or Vulcans, or, that those alien civilisations have evolved to such an advanced state that they may have already invented warp drives and the ability to travel across the vastness of space to Earth.

This is pure fiction, which is evidenced by the plethora of sci-fi TV shows and movies that incorporate warp-drive-powered spacecraft. The alternative in the movies for sub-light-speed spacecraft is sleep chambers where the travellers are put into “hyper-sleep”—a form of suspended animation—for a 100 years or more to make the enormous journey, even to just one of those nearby stars.

Recently astrophysicist Paul Davies acknowledged the rarity of life in the universe. He admitted that Earth may be the only place where life exists.10 Certainly Earth is the only planet in the universe known to support life. This admission makes nonsense of belief in alien intelligent life on other planets outside our solar system. The question here for the Christian believer is: Did God create life on other planets? And if not, why did He create such a large universe?11

Warp drives are really just about a type of faith—a blind faith. That type of faith posits that intelligent life is ‘out there’ (contrary to all evidence to the contrary12,13) and that mankind will eventually break the seemingly impossible barrier of the vastness of space and break out into the galaxy.

To conclude that the alien races are so much more advanced than we are, and therefore they must have conquered the problem of warp drive, is pure storytelling based on evolution. It is a substitute for the Creator God.

Darwinian evolution is assumed to have increased the brain power of some putative alien race to the point where they teach tensor calculus in nursery school. Thus their adults are more godlike than we are and find manipulation of space, time and energy a trifling matter. With their machines they can create space and time and manipulate energy and gravity to make safe intra-galactic, even inter-galactic, travel possible. Hence they can visit distant places in the galaxy at will.

This article started out with science fiction and now it ends with science fiction. Believe me; it is more fiction than science because the starting premise—Darwinian evolution—is pure fiction. Prof. Richard Dawkins once famously said:

“Evolution has been observed. It’s just that it hasn’t been observed while it’s happening.”14

It has never been observed but that is what science requires—observation of evidence. What Dawkins is really referring to is historical science, not operational science. The latter can be observed while it is happening.15 The former cannot. As the famous evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr admitted,

“For example, Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science—the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.”16

Perhaps the main reason NASA even considered conducting “warp drive” experiments is the entrenched belief in Darwinian evolution and the implied existence of aliens from other star systems. Hence the need to go out there and meet them.

Some even believe they have already made the trip there (Roswell, New Mexico17), while others say only interdimensional travel is possible. The latter folk communicate with ‘aliens from other stars systems’ using meditation and other New Age psychic practices. They have bypassed the impossibility of FTL travel and claim thought is not so limited. Hence, some say that they are in daily communication with ‘little green men’. It makes you wonder where this will lead!

References and notes

  1. G stars within 100 light-years, solstation.com, accessed January 2017. Return to text.
  2. Hartnett, J.G., Life on Earth 2.0—Really?, August 2015; creation.com. Return to text.
  3. See Warp Speed Calculators, anycalculator.com, accessed January 2017. Return to text.
  4. Williams, M., What is the Alcubierre “Warp” Drive?, universetoday.com, January 2017. Return to text.
  5. Without the warp bubble around the spacecraft the occupants would experience enormous acceleration or deceleration while moving up to or down from speeds near the speed of light. Return to text.
  6. One 2014 paper (Lee, J.S., and Cleaver, G.B., The Inability of the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer to SpectrallyResolve Spacetime Distortions, arvix.org, accessed January 2017) claims that the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer is incapable of detecting any spacetime distortions from the NASA group’s electrically charged plate experiments. Return to text.
  7. In principle, FTL warp drive experiments (not sci-fi stories) fall into the category of operational science. The repeated failure of such experiments to produce any warp effect exemplifies the power of operational science. Return to text.
  8. NASA—“Is It On the Verge of Discovering 'Warp Bubbles' Enabling Dreams of Interstellar Travel?”, dailygalaxy.com, accessed January 2017. Return to text.
  9. Major, J., Warp drives may come with a killer downside, universetoday.com, accessed January 2017. Return to text.
  10. Hartnett, J.G., Aliens are all around us, 20 December 2016; creation.com. Return to text.
  11. Bates, G., Did God create life on other planets?, Creation 29(2):12–15, March 2007. Return to text.
  12. SETI (Search for extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) searches must now have been going on for 50 years with absolutely no success. See Hartnett, J.G., SETI really?, BibleScienceForum.com, 29 September 2016. Return to text.
  13. Hartnett, J.G., Wow! Communications from little green men?, April 2016; creation.com. Return to text.
  14. ‘Battle over evolution’ Bill Moyers interviews Richard Dawkins, Now, pbs.org, accessed January 2017. Return to text.
  15. Operational science involves repeatable measurements that yield consistently reliable results. Return to text.
  16. Mayr, Ernst (1904–2005), Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought, based on a lecture that Mayr delivered in Stockholm on receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, 23 September 1999; published on scientificamerican.com, accessed January 2017. Return to text.
  17. Bates, G., Alien Intrusion, Creation Book Publishers, pp.66–69, 2015. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Andrew P.
Sublight speeds can still be fast enough to take advantage of time dilation to get to distant planets (e.g. to colonize them) within the lifetimes of the passengers, but it would be a one-way trip. Anyone wishing to return from such a trip would find that everyone they knew was long dead and the world had changed greatly in their absence. It would be like a man on Columbus' crew arriving in present-day Europe.
John Hartnett
Within a human lifetime (40 years if leaving as an adult and intending to arrive before infirm) one could hypothetically get to about 8 stars travelling at half the speed of light. These are all the G class (7) and F class (1) stars that could potentially have a planet in the habitable zone of the star within 20 light-years distance of Earth. So I do not think even travelling at a very high sub-light speed is viable, not withstanding the problem of collisions with dust particles at those speeds.

The occupants of the hypothetical spacecraft will be subject to some time dilation (15%) with respect to the Earth bound observers while the former are travelling at half the speed of light. But that does not help much because their journey time for 20 light-years travel is still 40 years as measured by their own clocks. Even if they were travelling at the speed of light it would take 20 years as measured by their own on-board clocks.
Gary T.
With respect to this part of the article:

"Years later, the next TV series...solved this problem by introducing a new formula that increased the warp speed in a highly non-linear fashion, such that a warp factor of 10 meant infinite speed across the galaxy. Thus distances were no longer a roadblock to get around the universe in the 40 minutes or less available in a TV episode."

The show's time limit is irrelevant to travel time. Similarly, an 8-hr multiple episode mini-series might contain a story that spans decades.

The original series didn't pay as much attention to the science as the later incarnations did.

I thoroughly enjoyed the different series in the franchise, but some of the more ridiculous speculations occurred in the original series. For example, planets where some form of "parallel evolution" supposedly occurred such that most of the United States and its history was replicated.

Ultimately, though, it was simply entertainment that examined different situations/concepts certainly worth thinking about, although it's laughable that so many want to duplicate the show's impossibilities. The duplication of other aspects of the show, however, like tablet computers, is a wonderful thing. Yet even here we find that historical/operational science distinction: the former duplication involves historical science (i.e., evolution), but the latter involves operational science.

Two things on the show always bothered me: (1) Spock's laughable logic/emotion dichotomy, and (2) the questionable philosophy often touted that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The logic/emotion dichotomy was meant as a conflict device, and to that end it worked well, although I didn't find it particularly convincing.
Richard G.
Fascinating Article!

I love the idea of Star Trek, but recognise it as a Work of Fiction - where the impossible is made possible. Warp-Dives and Hyper-Drive technologies that can enable us travel to the far side of the universe, are an aspiration of the human psyche. We see the vastness of space and can't help but wonder, What's out there? Are there other life-forms or civilisations that we can connect with. We simply don't know!

As God-Fearing, Bible-Believing Christians, The Words of Scripture inform us that there is a spiritual dimension to this world. There are Angelic beings: Principalities, and Powers, and Rulers of Darkness, and Spiritual Hosts of Wickedness (Eph 6:12) which are undeniably Supernatural!

Those who deny the existence of a Sovereign Creator God, willingly invent incredible fables, stories and myth under the guise of genuine scientific discovery. But the proof of the pudding is in the testing. The Bible records a lot of verifiable historical data, whereas Evolution exists only as a theoretical hypothesis.

Darwin and others have tried to explain away the material origins of the world by using irrational language! They communicate their ideas by abusing the terms. They use Space, Chance and Time as if they have power to effect or cause something to happen in and of themselves, which is entirely false. They use these DESCRIPTIVE terms as if formula: i.e. (Space) x (Chance) x (Time) = Everything! This is actually a Nonsense statement and totally unscientific. Yet they readily promote this formula as an explanation for the origin of the created order and accept it as fact. The reality is: (No-thing) x (No-thing) x (No-thing) = Absolutely Nothing (R C Sproul). At least in Star Trek has Lt. Spock to remind people not to be so illogical!
Jürgen K.
You don't even need FTL speeds to get others or yourself killed. Lightspeed and the not-so-empty space is sufficient enough to grind your spaceship to dust. There's no imaginable way around even this problem.
It is not only the mechanical forces of particles but also electromagnetic effects like x-rays and other bad radiation produced by particle collisions.
One cannot get around this. FTL speed would x-ray you to death while eating your ship fast.
While you are permanently x-rayed, there would be another problem. The free floating hydrogen protons which are in space everywhere would become high-speed-radiation. See, it doesn't matter if you are hit by a hammer at 100 miles per hour or if you hit the hammer at the same speed. Same goes for high speed protons. These are called cosmic rays if coming at high speed onto earth. The cosmic ray effect is also present if you or your ship hit a proton at the speed of light.
One would need very thick walls of very dense material to protect oneself from that "radiation" only.
And no, an energy-shield will not help. You just don't have enough energy at hand and lightspeed overcomes your field in any case.
In space every motion is relative. The faster you move in relation to the universe, the faster the universe moves in relation to you. It goes both ways in any case.
The universe isn't empty, nowhere. And that's a very big problem. Although big chunks of material are pretty sparse in the Universe, travelling very long distances will move the chance of getting hit by something big up to 1, eventually.
John Hartnett
To be fair though, the concept of the warp bubble means that around the spaceship the local physics is normal. The speed of light is normal and the spacecraft is even stationary inside the bubble. And thus there are no high speed particles inside. But when you come out of warp is where the problem occurs, as explained above. Of course this is all hypothetical anyway.
John H.
There is constant reference to cosmological and biological "historical theories" as being historical science. Firstly, the Nobel Committee does not regard such "historical theories" as prize "worthy science". Secondly, these historical theories are entirely philosophical, and have no scientific relevance or relationship. They are entirely founded on "metaphysical" religious beliefs well beyond the verifiable limits of science and physics. Thirdly, they turn logic, the scientific method, science, and the foundational principles causality on its head. All these historical theories operate on the unscientific principle that an "effect" can be far greater than the "cause", but actually "opposite" to the cause. Fourthly, they violate the most established law and observation in science. The law of ever increasing entropy and loss of usable energy. And the universal observation that the universe is running down snd constantly losing cosmic order and biological information. Making it impossible for the universe to simultaneously wind itself up as it is running down. In short, its time for creationist to drop the term historical "science". As there is no science anywhere to be found.
John Hartnett
I don't agree. But I also admit that it depends on your definition of "science". If you define "science" as only that which can be done in a local lab, then you are defining it as operational science. We would call forensic science "science" because it employs operational science to establish the facts, which then are placed into a story using a metaphysical worldview as the framework.

Creationists and evolutionists are in the same predicament. Both have a metaphysical worldview, and both need that to interpret those facts derived from the operational science. Even to state that the whole universe is "winding down" because we observe locally it winding down (effects of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) is a statement made using "historical science". One is extrapolating into not only unobserved parts of the universe, but also into unobserved epochs of time. What we need to do is recognise the limitations of "historical science" where most in the secular world see no distinction.

Comments are automatically closed 14 days after publication.