How to Travel at Warp Speed

Physicists say it's possible to go as fast as the Enterprise. In theory.

ByABC News
May 12, 2009, 6:20 PM

May 13, 2009 — -- Here's the good news for all those "Star Trek" enthusiasts out there -- a couple of physicists think they've figured out how to travel faster than the speed of light without breaking the laws of physics.

But here's the bad news -- we may have to sacrifice Jupiter to get there.

Gerald Cleaver, associate professor of physics at Baylor University, and his post-doctoral researcher, Richard Obousy, have combined some of the most elusive fields in physics, including string theory and general relativity, to concoct a scheme to move "Star Trek's" warp speed a little closer to reality. Very little, that is.

The folks who produce the "Star Trek" flicks have never explained how the good ship Enterprise can speed through the universe faster than a beam of light. That minor achievement is necessary if humans are ever to explore the galaxy's back yard, not to mention the distant reaches of the universe.

The only problem is Albert Einstein said it couldn't be done.

"Objects that have mass cannot travel at the speed of light," Cleaver said in an interview. According to Einstein's famous equation, "as an object travels faster and faster, its mass increases," he added. "As an object approaches the speed of light its mass becomes infinite."

In other words, a speck of dust traveling at the speed of light would have infinite mass, and it would take an infinite amount of energy to get it moving anywhere near that fast. So that pretty well knocks humans off the passenger list on the Starship Enterprise.

Not so fast, say Cleaver and Obousy, who have expanded upon a theory first proposed in 1994 by Michael Alcubierre, a Mexican physicist. Never mind warp drive, Alcubierre declared, what we really need for interstellar travel is a warp bubble. Alcubierre theorized that mass may be limited by Einstein's calculations, but that doesn't necessarily apply to space.

It might be possible, the Baylor researchers contend, to expand space behind a vehicle, say the Enterprise, and shrink space in front of it, thereby creating a bubble that could move through Einstein's space-time fabric at speeds much greater than the speed of light.