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Warp factor: fact or fiction ?


Einstein's theory of special relativity suggests that it's impossible to move across space faster than the speed of light (or at least, to pass through the light-speed barrier), but could future space pioneers find ways to overcome this problem? One option would be to make use of the time dilation effect; time would flow more slowly for the crew on board a spacecraft that is moving at relativistic speeds, perhaps allowing them to travel across many light years in what, for them, would seem like only a few months.

But Einstein's general theory of relativity, which demonstrates that space-time is a four-dimensional 'manifold' that can be warped and distorted, offers another alternative the 'warp drive'. First outlined in 1994 by mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, such device would involve moving a 'bubble' of normal space across great distances by compressing the region of space-time ahead of it and expanding the region behind it. A spacecraft inside the bubble could move at normal speeds relative to its immediate surroundings, while the bubble itself could move at faster-than-light speeds without actually breaing Einstein's rules.

NASA scientist Harold 'Sonny' White has since shown a doughnut-shaped region of distorted space-time could radically reduce the energy needs of warp drive, and although the practical challenges remain huge, White's team at the Johnson Space Center have begun experiments to demonstrate warp effects at micro level, which might one day be upscaled. So there's still hope for real-life Starship Enterprise yet..

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