Is 'faster-than-light' travel possible? Researchers think so
Despite artificial intelligence and genetic modification increasingly coming into the mainstream, one of the gems of science fiction - faster-than-light travel - has so far evaded scientific advancement. However, that impasse might not be an everlasting blemish on science - reportedly, scientists are becoming increasingly optimistic about the possibility of faster-than-light travel, at least in theoretical terms. Here's more.
A brief introduction to faster-than-light travel
What's wrong with faster-than-light travel? Well, not much, except that it's just incompatible with the fundamental laws of physics, specifically, with Einstein's general theory of relativity. That was the general idea about faster-than-light travel for decades, till 1994, when physicist Dr. Miguel Alcubierre came up with hypothetical "exotic matter", that made the idea theoretically possible within the confines of Einstein's general theory of relativity.
The idea of the warp bubble
This theoretical solution was something called a "warp bubble". The aforementioned exotic matter (which is something not known to exist yet but theoretically possible) would compress space in front of a spaceship, and would expand the space behind it, thereby allowing the spaceship to bypass general relativity - the spaceship would remain stationary inside the warp bubble, which would travel faster than light. Imagine a moving walkway in an airport - you stand still, but you still move.
No speed limits exist on the expansion of space
The key to the idea of the warp bubble is that while Einstein's general theory of relativity says that no object can travel faster than light, it does not put a speed limit on the expansion of space.
How much energy would a warp bubble need?
However, there was a snag. Even if a 'warp drive' could create a warp bubble to enable faster-than-light travel, initial calculations indicated that it would take a gargantuan amount of energy - more energy than exists in the universe. Research-fuelled debate on the amount of energy required to create a warp bubble has raged since then.
The energy requirement debate
Through calculation and re-calculation, scientists eventually concluded that the amount of energy required to create a warp bubble would be equivalent to Jupiter's mass, converted to energy. Although modest compared to initial calculations, the amount of energy was still gargantuan, and impractical. Now, however, according to a story published by the New York Times, scientists have calculated that a warp drive could actually be plausible.
Turns out, the energy requirement isn't impossible after all
Recently, some NASA scientists, led by Harold White, a physicist at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, came up with a possible way to configure 'exotic matter' so that warping can be possible with the energy contained in a ton or two of mass - equivalent to the mass of the Voyager spacecraft. While there's still a long way to go, these calculations indicate that faster-than-light travel is not just theoretically possible, it's also plausible.
Implications of the findings include space exploration and time travel
The findings, while theoretical, have massive implications. Faster-than-light travel, if and when it's actualized, would allow humans to not just spread out into seemingly unreachable corners of the universe, it would also imply that time travel is possible, thereby violating the revered notion of causality in physics. Yet, it could also turn out to be a momentary victory - further research could unravel physical laws that could rule out the possibility of faster-than-light travel.
Yet, we're centuries away from developing the requisite technology
Dr. Alcubierre, the mastermind behind the hypothetical warp drive (also called an Alcubierre drive), however, is skeptical about the new findings. Despite being the greatest advocate of the idea, the physicist told NYT that even if a warp drive could be constructed based on the new findings, it is well beyond the current technological capability of humans, and that we're "centuries" away from it.