The space-time bubble. Unfortunately, quantum physics may have the final word (Michael Alcubierre)

Warp Drive and Cloaking Devices: Not Just Science Fiction Anymore?

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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Standard in almost every Star Trek episode are warp drives and cloaking devices. But in reality these science fiction gadgets defy the laws of physics. Or do they? Different scientists have been working on developing these two devices and they say they are getting closer to actually creating working prototypes. While warp drive won’t be available anytime soon, scientists are gaining a better understanding of how faster-than-light speed could possibly be achieved. And as for cloaking devices, don’t look now, but researchers recently cloaked three-dimensional objects using specially engineered materials that redirects light around objects.

Previously, scientists at the University of California, Berkley were only able to cloak very thin, two dimensional objects. But now, using meta-materials, which are mixtures of metal and circuit board materials such as ceramic, Teflon or fiber composite, scientists have deflected light waves around an object, like water flowing around a smooth rock in a stream. Objects are visible because they scatter the light that strikes them, reflecting some of it back to the eye. But the meta-materials would ward off light, radar or other waves. In effect, it would be a type of optical camouflage.

The research group, led by Xiang Zhang say they are a step closer to being able to render people and objects invisible. Their findings will be released later this week in the journals Nature and Science.

The path that light rays would take through a theoretical cloaking device.  Credit: John Pendry

The path that light rays would take through a theoretical cloaking device. Credit: John Pendry

Another scientist and one of the leaders in cloaking research is John Pendry, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College, London. It was he who first worked out how a cloak could be built in theory, and then he helped build the first working cloak. Pendry recently submitted an abstract that discusses what he says is a new type of cloak, one that gives all cloaked objects the appearance of a flat conducting sheet. Pendry says this type of cloak has the advantage in that nothing remarkable is required to create the cloak. Pendry said the device could be “made isotropic. It makes broadband cloaking in the optical frequencies one step closer.” This type of cloak seemingly creates a mirage to render an object invisible to the eye. Pendry’s own website says information on his new cloak will be available soon.

While cloaking devices would have military applications, a group of scientists researching warp drives say they just want to have the ability to travel to Earth-like exoplanets, like Gliese 581c to better understand the origin and development of life. “The only way we could realistically visit these worlds in time-frames on the order of a human lifespan would be to develop what has been popularly termed a `warp drive,'” said researchers Gerald Cleaver and Richard Obousy from Baylor University in Texas.

Their work expands on research done by theoretical physicist Michael Alcubierre from the University of Mexico, who in 1994 demonstrated space could be made to move around a spacecraft by `stretching’ space so that space itself would expand behind a hypothetical spacecraft, while contracting in front of the craft, creating the effect of motion. So, the ship itself doesn’t move, but space moves around it.

Their new research tries to take advantage of advances in understanding dark energy and why our universe is ever-expanding in every direction. Comprehending that might give us a leg up in being able to generate an asymmetric bubble around a spacecraft. “If we can understand why spacetime is already expanding, we may be able to use this knowledge to artificially generate an expansion (and contraction) of spacetime,” said Cleaver and Obousy in their abstract.

They propose manipulating the 11th dimension, a special theoretical part of an offshoot of string theory called the “m-theory” to create a bubble of dark energy by shrinking the 11th dimension in front of the ship and expanding it behind.

Obviously, this is highly theoretical, but if it leads researchers to a better understanding of dark energy, so much the better.

There’s one hitch, however. Cleaver and Obousy calculated that the energy needed to distort the space around a spacecraft-sized object is about 10^45 Joules or the total energy of an object the size of Jupiter if all its mass were converted into energy.

This creates a chicken and the egg type of conundrum. Which comes first: understanding dark energy or having the ability to create huge amounts of energy?

But Cleaver and Obousy are upbeat about it all. “This is a hypothetical propulsion device that could theoretically circumvent the traditional limitations of special relativity which restricts spacecraft to sub-light velocities. Any breakthrough in this field would revolutionize space exploration and open the doorway to interstellar travel.”

News Sources: ArXiv (warp drive), ArXiv (cloaking), ArXiv blog, AP


50 Responses

  1. troglodyte says:

    I hope I live to see FTL travel achieved…probably not though

  2. Matthias says:

    Hmm, question though: how fast can changes in spacetime propagate? IIRC they themselves are restricted to the (local?) speed of light, ’cause that’s the point of gravitational waves…

    Which, in my humble imagination, would mean that, in order to get to a star 10 ly away, it would still take 10 years to contract the in between.

  3. Gary says:

    Yah if I we can solve the warp drive energy problem, who needs oil. ;o)

  4. willphoenix1 says:

    Great article. Amazing technologies are budding everywhere these days.

  5. Ayti says:

    So perhaps a nano-scaled probe would require far less energy because the bubble would be so small?

    Just a thought.

  6. andar839 says:

    hello dear sir, andar here. i enjoy post of yours very much so. i am agree to you. good day.

  7. Hunnter says:

    Outside of all the travelling to another star, one thing that would be an absolute requirement: a very good AI to control whatever goes to this star (if people aren’t going)

    We’ll probably not have any FTL communication by the time we create an FTL method of propulsion. Unless of course, we send pulses of this warped space back towards us encoded with the data.
    Problem with that is potential noise (as always) and the danger of sending pulses of warped space, and whether or not it could even travel without the need for a constant influence (unlikely)

    But i am really excited that people are getting into this research now, rather than later.
    Also, you can bet that when anyone does even a bit of testing on this that is successful, businesses will jump at them to fund this so they can build ships to gather materials from other planets.
    No longer will there be a crisis for materials, just point a telescope to a planet and choose….

  8. David R. says:

    “While cloaking devices would have military applications, a group of scientists researching warp drives say they just want to have the ability to travel to Earth-like exoplanets, like Gliese 581c to better understand the origin and development of life.”

    I sense a compromise in the works. The military funds it and uses the technology to blow up the Earth, while the remaining scientists take a leisurely cruise to an exoplanet.

  9. William Patrick Haines says:

    Of cource Ftl technology is wish full thinking . They are no gaurantees that could acheived or that if acheived it would not have un forseen drawbacks such as nuclear power and genitic energy ie who wants a nuclear power plant in their back yard or would to dine geneticly modified foods
    One of the perils of ftl would be time travel. Everybody has their verision of a utopian timeline like what if such and were be not president . Well so many people would tempted to alter history and here goes a mess more chaotic than the proverbial expolision in spagheti factory
    And should we come across a less advanced civilazation the hypercritical temptation tell them how to live when our house is out of order would be over whemling . Should this techoligy come online i hope they are wise enough to have develop as unmaned craft that have a return prob that would send data back to spacestation in the solar system or moon .

  10. geokstr says:

    “…research done by theoretical physicist Michael Alcubierre from the University of Mexico, who in 1994 demonstrated space could be made to move around a spacecraft by `stretching’ space…”

    I smell a whiff of BS here.

    Does “demonstrated” mean that there was an actual experiment that showed this could be done, or was there a mathematical theory proposed that vaguely hinted such a thing might be theoretically possible?

    Don’t get me wrong; I would love see such a thing. But for now and the foreseeable future, this sounds like more hype than anything else.

  11. Clan Chattan says:

    They say that the universe expanded faster than light just after the big bang. So FTL is possible. One possible explanation tho’ would be if another dimension, a “Brane” as they call it, had crashed edge on into our area of the multiverse ,then by travelling just a small distance into our space then the far edges of this “Brane” would be further out than light could travel ,in the given time. Thus the big bang could be not just a point but a universe wide crunch.

  12. I remember this being an explanation of how their ship flew so fast in an episode of Futurama once, followed by a sweet, 3 second CGI of it in action.

  13. Micky Dickson says:

    Really interesting stuff. If it was 1st April, I would have thought you were having us on!
    Keep up the good work.

  14. Ruben Beekman says:

    So if i understand correctly, since with this kind of travel you bend space and not move the ship, you would not need the Star Treks inertial dampener that prevents you from being squished against the back wall of the ship. Right?

  15. state the oblivious says:

    this is all very well but where will we get the dylithium crystals from?

  16. Joseph Durham says:

    The model that is being used causes nothing to move. Think of a hot knife flowing up through a vertical column of butter. The butter hits the knife, flows around the knife and fills in the gap behind the knife. Warp speed would be used to force this to happen. It’s not creating a worm-hole or anything else. It’s simply taking space that’s in front of the space craft and putting it behind the space craft. The spacecraft would shrink the space infront and inflate it behind the spacecraft. To the naked eye, the spacecraft would just appear an X distance ahead of where it started. If the spacecraft was coming toward you, you would actually see it in two places at once! This is an over simplified model but gives a layman something to grasp. (Or not.)

  17. risingman says:

    It seems they are finally coming towards the idea of free energy. The nature itself is a good propellent. I hope to see the invisibility whithin next 25 years and warp drive whithin next 85 years.

  18. Aodhhan says:

    Cleaver and Obousy are hopefully on their way to finding an answer by following a “carrot on a stick” method of travel. I don’t believe anyone thinks this will directly lead to anything, but the reasearch needed could make some interesting discoveries.

    Sort of like making a machine which can simulating the affects of a black hole. One side is your ship being pulled to a location, on the other side of the black hole, space is being pulled to the same spot. At some point, they meet and you are at your destination.

    A lot of interesting things can come out of the ability to artificially create huge amounts of gravity; including methods of cloaking.

  19. IKE:) the Alien lifeform says:

    Folding Space, travel without movement. Frank Herbert
    I firmly believe that we will solve the riddle of FTL travel, probably by folding space or directing it around a spaceship. Further I don’t think it will require vast amounts of energy. We have to find a way to slip in and use the energies of the universe, gravitation for instance is known to move faster than light…
    I won’t see it in my lifetime, but it is our destiny to explore space, and expand. And if we don’t destroy our world before it is possible we shall achieve this. 😉

  20. IKE:) the Alien lifeform says:

    oh, yes I forgot. Joseph Durham said it nicely. Thanks, Joseph

  21. John Mendenhall says:

    Look up the Wiki article on Dimension. There is zero, zilch, absolutely no evidence of any dimensions in the real universe beyond the 3 spatial and 1 time that we know. 11th dimension? I don’t think so.

    The cloaking, however, will probably work.

    Remember, be skeptical. For anything involving string theory, be doubly skeptical. They haveb’t produced anything testable yet.

  22. Astrofreak says:

    “There’s one hitch, however. Cleaver and Obousy calculated that the energy needed to distort the space around a spacecraft-sized object is about 10^45 Joules or the total energy of an object the size of Jupiter if all its mass were converted into energy”

    Oh, that’ll be easy….

  23. Hunnter says:

    >Astrofreak

    Totally, we’ll just build another LHC, in miniature, then launch it into the planet, then BOOM.
    ..oh wait, no boom, more like SQUICHECKUIOLOP.

    Damn, looks like i need to get back to the drawing board.

  24. Uclock says:

    With physics having absolutely no understanding of space or time I wouldn’t hold your breath.
    All I can say is that string theory is for ‘P’ branes, or is that Pea brains!

  25. Johnbob says:

    I had to laugh at the wiki response. You know wiki is maintained by anyone and everyone. The number one rule is to never believe anything you see in the wiki as it could have been authored by someone who has no clue what they are talking about just as easily as someone versed within the subject. Instead focus on reading up about quantum physics and you’ll learn much about the dimensions around us.

  26. mike says:

    So now I understand why the spaceship videos taken in Mexico City and Salida offer no detail; the ships were cloaked. Enjoyed David R’s comments on the warp technology, which we can assume will be funded by the military. If you are the same David R that I used to run around with in my LaSalle days, get in touch. MOK

  27. Jon Hanford says:

    What mystifies me concerning FTL travel, and I see no mention of this in the article or any comments, is how you precisely navigate your vessel to your destination. General relativity describes your forward/rearward views of space around you as a shrinking cone of view as you approach lightspeed. Exactly what reference points are available to your craft moving faster than light? What happens as you hurtle through molecular clouds, nebulae, dust & possibly stars at FTL speeds. Again, no reference points( light must now catch up to your ship), so how do you figure out EXACTLY where you are in the universe. This is not a trivial matter. I see no mention of this problem in any of these theoretical scenarios. Great food for thought, but the devil is in the details.

  28. Hunnter says:

    Well of course Jon, this would have to be down to trial and error at first.

    We’d build unmanned ships, shoot out for, say, a second, turn back and see the results.
    Do this again with longer time periods if required.

    Eventually equations will be formed to calculate distances and potentially speeds.

  29. dollhopf says:

    “the energy needed to distort the space around a spacecraft-sized object is about 10^45 Joules”

    When we are able to afford 10^45 Joule for one of our space ships then we can as well fly it to every point in our galactic vicinity by conventional methods 🙂

  30. JamesB says:

    This article is talking about apples and oranges! Cloaking technology uses basic physics to bend light, whereas FTL travel needs a mythical ‘n’th dimension to work and is far outside the realm of practical physics.

    How you can link these two topics together in the same article and have them look like they are related is sheer elegance…

    Maybe they need to quit wasting time on mystical dark energy and higher dimensions and just concentrate on trying to make synthetic ‘spice’ so we can just fold space… Oops, I guess ‘spice’ is just science fiction too!

    Instead of wasting time and energy on how we might manipulate reality, why not just invest those resources into understanding it first?

  31. dollhopf says:

    JamesB said: “How you can link these two topics together in the same article and have them look like they are related is sheer elegance…”

    Well, I guess that link is the TV show “Star Trek” where both topics are combined in the Klingons’ space ships.

    But you are right when saying “why not just invest those resources into understanding it first?” So do you have any literature? I have a favour for titles like
    “The 11th Dimension in a Nutshell” or
    “m-Theory for Dummies”, please.

  32. zeb says:

    I dunno… it seems to me that anytime that we see a potential FTL phenomenon, the universe concocts it so we can’t send information.

    Sending photons through a medium at greater than c?…but it can’t be used to send data.

    Quantum entangled particles communicate instantaneously…but we can’t control what they’ll say so we can’t encode them.

  33. JamesB says:

    dollhopf – You really are a SciFi fan! I was talking about the scientific basis for cloaking and warp drive not being linked and you reference Star Trek. Then on understanding reality you invoke two other science fantasy books!

    First thing you need to do to ground yourself in reality is look up the definitions for four words ‘idea’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘theory’ and ‘law’ as they apply to scientific discovery.

    You’ll find that ‘n’th dimensions are still only at the ‘idea’ stage, it’s not even a ‘hypothesis’ yet! Understanding doesn’t even enter the picture until ‘theory’, and then is very limited (where we are with relativity and quantum mechanics).

    Most scientific ‘laws’ are 200 or more years old. How well do you think we really understand reality given that?

  34. Exordium says:

    I must agree with Zeb; the universe appears to be set up in such a way as to make some things just down right impossible regardless of intelligence. I would think FTL travel fits this category, although so was the idea of microwave ovens at one point.
    Now i understand that might not be the best comparison but if you imagine attempting to explain how non-ionizing microwave radiation might allow people of the 20’th Century to heat up their food without the use of fire to say someone from 14’th century; well that might also prove to be impossble. That being said there nothing wrong with some fun speculation. The mathematical framework of string theory is intriguing to say the least. Perhaps these proposed ideas of FTL travel will in 600 years appear as ridiculous as some early sketches of man-made flying machines. Our understanding of reality may be lacking but it’s amazing how much we do know, and what we do know began as speculation, although I very unscientifically suspect we will never reach an upperbound to understanding the true nature of reality/universe/multiverse.

  35. dollhopf says:

    Upps pups … funny response, James! I guess I better let pass your comments next time.

    Nevertheless, tx for lending The Enlightenment your personal mental flamethrower. 🙂

  36. Peter says:

    The usual negs and pros here. Spend money on understanding…hmmm…sounds like that is exactly what is going on. Someone first has to propose an idea before it can be researched. And James B, you do come across as arrogant. Star Trek IS the element that combines these two distinct ideas. Just because it is Sci-Fi doesn’t mean it doesn’t suggest some interesting ideas that deserve further interest. The article proposes a method of FTL that intrigues me. Here’s a question…once that bubble is popped, presumably close to the destination, would not the ship snap back to its original apparent location? The space being no longer attenuated behind and compressed afore?

  37. Alin says:

    So, just to remember to all of you skeptical guys, 150 ago when Jules Verne imagined sending a men to the moon, all of humanity considered him nuts. Well, unbeliavable, we actualy did it. In a few hundred years from now, people will look back at us thinking how short minded we were.

  38. JamesB says:

    Peter – pardon me for suggesting that we research hypothesis and theories rather than the millions of mere ideas anyone can come up with. I humbly beg forgiveness for preferring practical science to speculative fantasy!! Excuse my arrogance for insisting that scientific funding not be wasted chasing pipe dreams.

    If we all we do is chase pipe dreams, in 100 years when we’ll still just dreaming about FTL travel because no one bothered to actually understand reality. I simply can not sit still for such an outcome!

    How can you try to harness the 11th dimension (or any other dimension) for travel when empirical science doesn’t support that these higher dimensions even exists?? Figure out if there really ARE any dimensions higher than the 4 spacial dimensions, THEN figure out how to use it for practical application.

    How is wanting to do something so simple and practical arrogant?

  39. dollhopf says:

    I was about eleven years old and living in a small village in Bavaria near to the Iron Curtain when the TV channel ZDF started broadcasting ‘Raumschiff Enterprise’ within Germany.

    My parents had no television receiver that time. So on Saturday afternoon at 5 pm I sat in front of the tube in the living room of the neighbour’s house across the acre together with my friend Armin eagerly awaiting the beginning of the show. As soon as it started, his father muttered something about ‘what an idiocy’ and grabbed his bottle of beer to go outside and feed the rabbits.

    Several years later I took courses on critical rationalism at university and eagerly tried to find weak points in the explanations of the instructors, which was of less success by itself but helped me a lot to understand and absorb the topic.

    And again a serveral years later a certain Mr. James B. reads an article of Nancy Atkinson about Warp Drive and Cloaking Devices and asks in the forum: “How you can link these two topics together in the same article”, whereupon I posted him a simple answer: “Well, I guess that link is the TV show Star Trek where both topics are combined in the Klingons space ships.”

    Since that moment I ask myself, what’s wrong with me, that he hates me 🙂

  40. JamesB says:

    dollhopf – actually you missed my point entirely if you consider what wasn’t even a lit match to be a flamethrower, or that I have any emotion at all about you as a person.

    I really hope that you aren’t as fragile as you try to portray. That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who challenged their professors in school! Maybe you’ve lost your edge.

    Nancy named the article “Warp Drive and Cloaking Devices: Not Just Science Fiction Anymore”. Then she proceeded to prove that while cloaking technology exists and works in the lab, Warp Drive is entirely different animal that is still just science fiction. She used SciFi to link the two, but even in her title she discounts that casual link.

    I thought how she did it was elegant, but misleading since the science of cloaking has been around since before the first Star Trek broadcast (which I watched) and was firmly entrenched in empirical science. Meanwhile warp drive depends on elements that at this point in time are purely speculative and unable to be tested (IE- science fiction).

    Now I could join in the fun and discuss the possibilities of this method creating a warp drive, and when I was younger I might have. But to what purpose?? There is no empirical proof that spacial dimensions above 4 exist, and there is no way of testing for any higher dimensions. If you can’t test for higher dimensions, why would we even discuss how they might be harnessed? If they COULD be harnessed, then they could be tested for so any argument to use higher dimensions is immediately shot down.

    But I REALLY would like to see the problems of traveling to other stars solved within my lifetime, and that means science needs to get serious about it! Cosmology is stalled out because of untestable ideas (not even hypothesis or theories, just ideas), such as dark matter and dark energy. There are far more viable theories (not just ideas) that explain the background radiation as something other than a Big-Bang afterglow. Same with red-shifted light.

    So when someone takes the CMB and uses it to measure dark energy, we really don’t know what was measured since dark energy is still just an idea and the CMB is still just the hypothetical afterglow of the big bang. And in both cases there are alternative ideas and hypothesis that do as good of a job explaining the phenomenon or better!

    We are forging ahead in directions that we know may not be right, engaging in junk science in the process. This warp drive idea in this article is one such item of ‘junk science’.

    But, dollhopf, I don’t know you and if you are that fragile to think I have ANY emotion about you what so ever then I can’t say that I would care to know you. So no, I don’t hate you…

  41. dollhopf says:

    … whereas it’s not completely impossible that your manners will improve one day.

  42. JamesB says:

    dollhopf – a viable FTL drive is more likely to happen…

  43. Cookie says:

    Well James, I guess we all know what the B in your name stands for. 🙂

  44. JamesB says:

    Actually, that was my second post to dollhopf . Somehow the first got deleted (there is some censorship going on in this thread, though I assume it’s intended to the content civil, which is good I suppose).

    My first post was simply hoping that dollhopf find the courage again that he once demonstrated in questioning his professors, for him to find again that fire he lost when he left university.

    I would have actually loved to discuss this topic of a viable 11-th dimension warp drive with him. While I don’t feel it’s worth the effort to discuss how it might be implemented, I would relish discussion on whether there might be other viable alternatives, or ways to actually verify higher dimensions so that REAL discussions of using them could ensue.

    I merely shot down the idea that using ‘n’th dimension for FTL travel is viable since there is no empirical proof that higher dimensions exist and we are unable to even test for the existence of higher dimensions, which demonstrates that there is no basis on which we could presume to know how FTL travel could be done.

    But ‘n’th dimensions isn’t the only potential route to FTL travel. No one bothered to counter my assessment of current technology with alternatives or to even challenge that assessment I made.

    Nope- you instead chose to make your response a personal attack.

    One of the downsides of posting here is that a person can actually post multiple messages under different IDs. I can’t say that I’ve seen ‘Cookie’ posting on any messages before, and certainly not on this thread. Is this your fist time posting? If it is I’m honored by your indulgence to make me your subject.

    Or is it that there is only one person using multiple names when posting. This is something we’ll never now…

  45. Clan Chattan says:

    JamesB ,I understand your need for resources to be focused on what is known and practical. BUT, It is the general public via politicians and companies that finance reaserch . They have to be entertained and hooked on interesting things to support by using the bait of speculation on the hook of serious science. Thus I contend that wide spread dissemination of , for instance, Science Fiction , is good for Science.

  46. JamesB says:

    Peter – by the way the word isn’t ‘arogant’, it’s ‘cynical’…

    That’s what I come across as…

  47. JamesB says:

    Science fiction as science is what I’m against, not science fiction as fiction.

    The ‘Star trek Technical Manual’ is not a real manual, but a work of fiction! I understand that so I don’t go around arguing about how a transporter works. When they invent one, then we’ll have a real manual that we can argue about.

    But no investor wants to be sold a bill of goods only to be told that what he was sold on was fraudulently misrepresented.

    And as one of the people funding these projects I have a moral and legal obligation to point at the bare naked emperor and complain about the lack of clothes…

    There are actually people on this thread who believe that the 11th dimension has been proven to exist and is waiting to be exploited. I’m not one of them. I say, show me the monkey!! Err, money!!! (sorry obscure reference to TNT TV network’s old monkey commercials where they parodied current movies using monkeys as the cast).

  48. quantum_flux says:

    warping spacetime via light wave manipulation looks to be optimistic….

    The First Time Machine

  49. Enthusiast says:

    Come to think of it…..

    back in the old days people use to think the earth was the center of the solar system, that the freakin’ earth was flat, they never thought that electricity would be f *ckin’ available…

    whats to argue??!! we are in the midst of technological progress…. y’all dig??

  50. Michele Del Gaizo says:

    You people make me laugh…really. This is a really fascinating subject on Warp Drive and Cloaking devices…and we used to make fun of shows like Star Trek because travel through space was just an unheard of idea by science fiction nuts(which I guess I am in a way). You are fighting over what?! Get a grip.This is a great area to explore….who would have ever believed that we’d have an international space station housing several members of international space agencies in space. Folks, this is only the beginning and shouldn’t be limited by those without the ability to think “outside the box”. Let’s Explore the possibilities!! Guard Dog

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