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Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside

Dropping out of warp speed could have deadly results. (Image: Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios)

Planning a little space travel to see some friends on Kepler 22b? Thinking of trying out your newly-installed FTL3000 Alcubierre Warp Drive to get you there in no time? Better not make it a surprise visit — your arrival may end up disintegrating anyone there when you show up.

“Warp” technology and faster-than-light (FTL) space travel has been a staple of science fiction for decades. The distances in space are just so vast and planetary systems — even within a single galaxy — are spaced so far apart, such a concept is needed to make casual human exploration feasible (and fit within the comforts of people’s imagination as well… nobody wants to think about Kirk and Spock bravely going to some alien planet while everyone they’ve ever known dies of old age!)

While many factors involving FTL travel are purely theoretical — and may remain in the realm of imagination for a very long time, if not ever — there are some concepts that play well with currently-accepted physics.

Warp field according to the Alcubierre drive. (AllenMcC.)

The Alcubierre warp drive is one of those concepts.

Proposed by Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, the drive would propel a ship at superluminal speeds by creating a bubble of negative energy around it, expanding space (and time) behind the ship while compressing space in front of it. In much the same way that a surfer rides a wave, the bubble of space containing the ship and its passengers would be pushed at velocities not limited to the speed of light toward a destination.

Of course, when the ship reaches its destination it has to stop. And that’s when all 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.

“Any people at the destination,” the team’s paper concludes, “would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.”

In other words, don’t expect much of a welcome party.

Another thing the team found is that the amount of energy released is dependent on the length of the superluminal journey, but there is potentially no limit on its intensity.

“Interestingly, the energy burst released upon arriving at the destination does not have an upper limit,” McMonigal told Universe Today in an email. “You can just keep on traveling for longer and longer distances to increase the energy that will be released as much as you like, one of the odd effects of General Relativity. Unfortunately, even for very short journeys the energy released is so large that you would completely obliterate anything in front of you.”

So how to avoid disintegrating your port of call? It may be as simple as just aiming your vessel a bit off to the side… or, it may not. The research only focused on the planar space in front of and behind the warp bubble; deadly postwarp particle beams could end up blown in all directions!

Luckily for Vulcans, Tatooinians and any acquaintances on Kepler 22b, the Alcubierre warp drive is still very much theoretical. While the mechanics work with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the creation of negative energy densities is an as-of-yet unknown technology — and may be impossible.

Which could be a very good thing for us, should someone out there be planning a surprise visit our way!


Read more about Alcubierre warp drives here, and you can download the full University of Sydney team’s research paper here.

Thanks to Brendan McMonigal and Geraint Lewis for the extra information!

Main image © Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios. All rights reserved.



A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Franco J. Torres March 2, 2012, 3:30 PM

    I’m 31 years old. I would love to see at least one major space travel breakthrough in my lifetime. Let’s just get to Mars; baby steps.

  • ridewyoming March 2, 2012, 6:54 PM

    That’s why you drop out of warp before destination and do the rest of the trip with the Impulse Drive.

  • wfolta March 2, 2012, 9:38 PM

    Sounds pretty easy to weaponize. Who needs lasers when you can simply play a game of bumper cars on a galactic scale and vaporize the car you “hit”. Double-impact: first your enemy’s Unmanned Space Vehicle drops out of warp and zaps you, then a few seconds later it rams you at sub-warp-but-asteroid-strike-like speed. :-(

  • wfolta March 2, 2012, 9:38 PM

    Sounds pretty easy to weaponize. Who needs lasers when you can simply play a game of bumper cars on a galactic scale and vaporize the car you “hit”. Double-impact: first your enemy’s Unmanned Space Vehicle drops out of warp and zaps you, then a few seconds later it rams you at sub-warp-but-asteroid-strike-like speed. :-(

  • Obasi Osborne March 2, 2012, 10:13 PM

    Dude, get a deflector dish. Simple as that.

  • BANSAK9214 March 2, 2012, 10:28 PM

    We cannot go to Mars, or the moon again. Instead we must first make sure everyone here gets free TV and sneakers, a new car, cheese and an goobermint education and free contraceptives so they will know how to vote. Then, maybe…in about the year 3568 or so the lib hacks might consider doing something to actually benefit the folks who pay the tab. China will be there long before us.

  • David Govett March 2, 2012, 10:34 PM

    Travel backward.

  • Vernon Bell March 2, 2012, 10:35 PM

    You can also just stop your trip at several waypoints in deep space, discharging the energy before it builds up.

  • Vernon Bell March 2, 2012, 10:35 PM

    You can also just stop your trip at several waypoints in deep space, discharging the energy before it builds up.

  • Marilyn Watson March 3, 2012, 2:28 AM

    Talk about thinking in a box. Since little or nothing is actually known about this theory, particles may not be swept into the warp bubble. They may be actually be repelled. Speculation about warp physics using the current page of currently-accepted physics is actually only an exercise in negative thinking. Of course warp drive won’t work with current physics. The next step, the next page has to be found and learned before this is even closer to happening.

  • Branko Badrljica March 3, 2012, 4:45 AM

    Eh, they had gone through all that trouble only to ignore most obvious solution.

    For each superluminal second you drop to subluminal speed for a microsecond and voilla- problem solved!

  • Carlos Portela March 3, 2012, 5:00 AM

    ha very interesting and i am glad i am not the only crazy one..lol mine is called the atomic spaceship able to travel three times the speed of light, slight similar to this the possibility but i am using one equation that’s been around for 100 years and it was created by the none other than Einstein the world famous E=MC2 for according to the book i am writing called sittos science within the equation lies the very clues that travelling faster than speed of light is possible eve though it was created to prove the contrary yet with my own equations i believe that a spaceship is possible to be build and reach beyond the speed of light, if you people willing to share what you have come up with i am willing to share all drawings of the spaceship and equations and possible know how… interested?/ email me: sittos_science@yahoo.co.uk imean why be in competition i don’t mind sharing the glory..

  • Keith Hawes March 3, 2012, 5:34 AM

    i agree with chris morrow, i thought thats what the deflector dish was for?

  • Evan Larson March 3, 2012, 3:19 PM

    Maybe sunspots are the result of ships politely aiming this reentry energy towards the sun.

  • Farrar Hudkins March 3, 2012, 4:47 PM

    The “Star Trek” warp drives have something called “Bussard collectors” which are supposed to collect particles while the ship travels. The particles are used to power the ship. In 1965 it was total gibberish, and who knows who “Bussard” was, but it’s a convenient “out” for the Trekkies!

  • kombizz March 3, 2012, 5:00 PM

    I would like to follow that red UFO two decades ago.

  • changling March 3, 2012, 11:19 PM

    Besides making a nasty weapon one would have to come out of FTL much further away an on a blind side to avoid irradiating inhabited planets.

    Since it is still on paper as in hypothetical. (A theory is proven, this hasn’t been) then we can work on what to do with the excess energy. Well it would be a nice idea to put it into a capacitor to use again or find a way of releasing it in another lower frequency like light.

    And if this is the only way that works if we can’t create wormholes to use it would be dangerous to use them for exploration if we reach a system then blast it with dangerous doses of radiation. An imagine coming back to Terra? But we can rest for the moment. And we have far more dangerous things happening on our own planet from our previous 300+ years of irresponsibility.

  • Jonathan March 6, 2012, 5:56 PM

    A) Deflector dishes knock particles out of the path of Trek ships

    B) Bussar Collectors sweep up interstellar hydrogen for fuel supplimentation (the deflector allows these through its field)

    C) Even without both A & B, the ship and the warp field are not ‘stopping’ instantly by dropping the warp field, they need to decelerate or you also risk injury / death for the crew (whether by splattering them across the bulkheads, or structural failure(s)). Wouldn’t this also have the effect of decelerating the particles that got swept up in your ‘wake’?

  • Larry Cathey March 6, 2012, 6:02 PM

    meh. Slip-stream technology then. That’s what Star Wars Hyperspace is anyway….another dimension that mirrors the gravity points in their “real” galaxy.

    Create a dimensional portal device that allows the ship to slide into the dimensional space, proceed with the journey, then slide out once you arrive.

  • Thomas Taylor March 7, 2012, 9:58 AM

    these people are morons… its sci-fi… and ur science still sucks. so, so, so, sad. How did they get degrees?