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

Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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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.

 

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Balboa Technology
Guest
February 29, 2012 11:38 PM

So, we just need to work out the whole deflector thing first…? razz

philip davis
Guest
philip davis
March 1, 2012 2:05 AM

you might want to try rerouting the EPS conduits first. Also modulating the phase inducers might help.

Steven Rogers
Guest
Steven Rogers
March 1, 2012 5:51 AM

You keep forgetting to reverse the polarity. That’s elementary.

Stan Taylor
Guest
Stan Taylor
March 1, 2012 1:13 PM

Subroutine. (drink a shot) Deflector dish. (drink a shot)
…and you’re blotto.

Deejay Nunti
Guest
Deejay Nunti
March 1, 2012 3:50 PM

my name is Zefram Cochrane and you are all wrong. I`ve already given the plans for the first Warp Ship to NASA , but as they usualy work, i guess the first flight will take place in 2063. Don`t ask me where i get the plans from, a spaceship came from future gave them to me, but this is secret.

Balboa Technology
Guest
February 29, 2012 11:38 PM

So, we just need to work out the whole deflector thing first…? razz

lalwanis
Guest
lalwanis
February 29, 2012 11:44 PM

funfilled thriller article!!!

lalwanis
Guest
lalwanis
February 29, 2012 11:44 PM

funfilled thriller article!!!

Alexander Burke
Guest
Alexander Burke
February 29, 2012 11:48 PM

Far side of local star?

Jennifer Klootwyk
Guest
Jennifer Klootwyk
February 29, 2012 11:50 PM

looks like we had better find a way to convert the energy inside the bubble that is either usable, or find a way to neutralize it.

thefalcone
Guest
thefalcone
March 1, 2012 12:02 AM

“Nothing can travel through space faster than the speed of light but space can do whatever the heck it wants.” http://youtu.be/Myd2OyH21Eg Give a theoretical physicist a condom and a dream and he’ll give you a warp drive.

Really20
Guest
Really20
March 1, 2012 12:16 AM

Maybe then they could create some kind of energy sink for this, and ensure that all of these ships stop at regular intervals. Unfortunately, thousands of years into the future this could be the ultimate suicide bomb. The “suicide” part may not even be true if it is just a robotic drone programmed to stop somewhere far away.

Really20
Guest
Really20
March 1, 2012 12:22 AM

By the way, the last sentence in the paper, for anyone who read it.

” While in one way journeys particles travelling towards the origin are potentially dangerously blueshifted, their supposed distance from the origin would render them too sparse to be of major concern by the time they reached the origin.”

Hlafordlaes
Member
Hlafordlaes
March 1, 2012 1:28 AM

I still want one.

Ronald Canelon
Guest
March 1, 2012 1:30 AM

As-of-yet is not a proper phrase. It makes no sense, yet people continue to use it. With that said, I think we’re getting way ahead of ourselves when discussing the ramifications of a theoretical mode of travel. One that is, as of now, still considered impossible.

David Krauss
Guest
David Krauss
March 1, 2012 4:12 AM

“As of yet” may be redundant, in that “as-of-yet unknown technology” means exactly the same thing as “yet unknown technology.” It might be poor grammar, as the adverb “yet” appears to be used as a noun — probably the modifier “yet” was applied because the entire phrase is used as an adjective. That doesn’t really make it nonsense, though.

Discussing the ramifications of a theory is getting ahead of ourselves? What else is a theory for? (Sorry, for what else do we use a theory?)

Also, the idea of a new kind of particle accelerator is interesting outside the travel aspects.

dimar
Member
March 1, 2012 1:30 AM

If we could create a manageable black hole, it could provide gravity for the ship, suck in those particles, and evaporate the energy to recharge the ship’s batteries smile

Peter
Member
Peter
March 1, 2012 3:51 AM

Ah yes, suck in the particles outside, but not the ship itself! Excellent.

Quincy Jones
Guest
Quincy Jones
March 1, 2012 6:22 AM

Does not compute. Error is conflict of values. Evaporate the energy… energy does the vaporizing not the other way around… you mean pile it up into a type of gun or magnetic field generator… I hope.

dimar
Member
March 1, 2012 8:39 AM

What I really meant, I think, is to use the Hawking radiation to power the ship.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 1, 2012 2:05 AM

These spacetime solutions are pathological. The energy released here appears to be due to the negative energy condition on the “exotic field” which is the source of the spacetime curvature. A couple of years ago it was found the Alcubierre warp drive results in a huge burst of Hawking-like radiation which demolishes the spacetime configuration. This type of research is important, for by figuring out the failure points of solutions we can identify the source of chronology protection and the censorship of singularities.

LC

Super Earth
Member
Super Earth
March 1, 2012 3:58 AM

Cronology protection?

Is there any hint that this warp bubbles could be used to travel back in time?

Tom
Guest
Tom
March 1, 2012 2:18 PM

Of course, how else are you going to bring whales to the future… um… present. I guess that part’s relative.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 1, 2012 3:01 PM

Warp drives violate the weak energy condition, with the WEC being T^{00} >= 0, and if the universe violates this then not only are warp drives possible, but wormholes and a host of other things. Wormholes and Kransnov tubes can be converted into time machines.

LC

Peter
Member
Peter
March 1, 2012 2:32 PM

Yes, if there’s anything that makes my day, it’s identifying the censorship of singularities! I’m going right out now to start a flash mob to promote the freedom of open singularities!

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 1, 2012 3:11 PM
You might have better luck at, and a better outcome with, calling up Cthulhu from the deep. If you are familiar with complex variables you know that paths which enclose a singular point or pole can have a branch cut. The branch cut connects an infinite stack of complex planes. A naked spacetime singularity would do something similar, and you would become lost in an infinite arrays of spacetimes. The inner timelike region of a Kerr or Reissner-Nordstrom black hole metric would do something similar if you encountered the singularity inside there. This assumes you can cross the inner horizon and the blueshift divergence there. You would find yourself lost in a cosmological version of the Bill Murray… Read more »
Super Earth
Member
Super Earth
March 1, 2012 11:11 PM
Cosmic censorship?What about this? Destroying a near-extremal Kerr-Newman black hole http://arxiv.org/abs/1105.3950 It is about plunging a test particle into a rapidly spinning Kerr black hole. Since black holes form if and only if a very dense object (like a collapsing stellar core) follows the inequality: M^2 ? a^2+ Q^2 ; a =J/M; M is mass, J angular momentum and Q is electric charge. When the above is an equality, we have an extremal black hole. The idea of destroying a near extremal or extremal black hole is to plunge a test particle with the right charge and momentum to make the hole violate the above inequality. For the case in question, a Kerr black hole is destroyed plunging… Read more »
Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 2, 2012 12:37 AM
I will comment on this in greater depth later today or tomorrow. Time is a bit constrained for a long discussion right now. However in looking at this paper I think there is a serious problem. If a Kerr black hole is some increment of angular momentum away from extremal condition, you can’t easily apply that amount of angular momentum and get it to extremality. When you perturb a black hole it produces gravity waves. If you try to hurl a mass at high velocity at a near extremal black hole you will produce lots of gravity waves that carry off most of that angular momentum. Reaching extremal condition is analogous, or really the same, as trying to… Read more »
Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 2, 2012 8:29 PM
This is to follow up on the Kerr metric and angular momentum. The two event horizons in the Kerr black hole with angular momentum J and mass m are, r_{+/-} = (G/c^2)(m +/- sqrt{m^2 – (Jc/Gm)^2}. with the the metric ds^2 = -[(r_+^2 – r_-^2)(r – r_+)/r_+^2]dt^2 + 1/[(r_+^2 – r_-^2)(r – r_+)/r_+^2]dr^2 + … This more or less works for the RN black hole with a charge. One just replaces Jc/Gm with a charge in naturalized units. The horizon r_+ is the outer horizon which separates the exterior world with a timelike metric from an interior region with a spacelike metric. The inner horizon r_- interior to the black hole separates the spacelike region from a further… Read more »
Super Earth
Member
Super Earth
March 3, 2012 2:16 AM

In the formula above ? is zero for extremal black holes because for them r_- = r_+ and so the term (r_+ – r_-) vanishes.

But the paper was not about extremal black holes but about NEAR-extremal black holes. The paper began with the impossibility to destroy an extremal black hole. Then it showed that however, it should be possible to destroy a black hole that is almost(but not quite) extremal. A small and rapid object should be enough to destroy the hole and “undress” the singularity.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 3, 2012 3:49 AM
The problem is that this is a thermodynamic process, which the authors of this paper seem to be ignoring. Reaching the extremal condition is a black hole thermodynamic process of reaching absolute zero. The extremal black hole is not a naked singularity, for the r_+ = r_- region does not propagate classical information to the outside world. If you are able to spin the black hole up further then you do have the naked singularity. The extremal gravity is zero and for the naked singularity it is repulsive. I am avoiding getting into BPS black holes, extremal black holes and quantum gravity. In quantum gravity, the BPS black hole is compared to a timelike path with ds^2 >… Read more »
Super Earth
Member
Super Earth
March 3, 2012 5:18 AM
But what loophole in the paper analysis can save the near-extremal black hole from destruction? The paper shows how we go from a near extremal black hole to a naked singularity, and if I understand it well, WITHOUT BECOMING AN EXTREMAL BLACK HOLE in the middle of the process (your totally valid objection assumes that). So we start with a near-extremal Kerr black hole, then that little moon crosses the horizon (tidal effects are negligible because this black hole is a supermassive monster) and falls toward the center. We now have a dynamic situation were the moon is falling towards the singularity. What the destruction of a black hole would look like I have no idea. Maybe the… Read more »
Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 3, 2012 11:02 PM
The problem is that trying to get a naked singularity, even by trying to leap frog across the null condition for the extremal black hole, is that it is like trying to get a temperature colder than absolute zero. The extremal condition, or the closest one can get to is is analogous to a Bose-Einstein condensate. What prevents things from going to a lower energy state (colder) is that the eigenstates of the universe are bounded below with some absolute minimum. If that does not exist then things go a bit awry. F. Dyson pondered what would happen in QED if a charge were imaginary valued. Opposite charges would repel and by QED electron positron pairs would come… Read more »
Super Earth
Member
Super Earth
March 3, 2012 2:20 AM
We can have a black hole with a small “delta” departure from extremality: delta^2= M^2 ? a^2 > 0, delta/M? 1. Then the paper showed that any test particles that: 1) Have energy E, electric charge e, and orbital angular momentum L that are small enough for the test particle approximation to be valid: E/M ? 1, L/aM ? 1, and e/Q ? 1, 2) Follow the condition: Emin < E < Emax Where • Emin is the minimum energy necessary to assure the particle does in effect plunge into the black hole • Emax is the maximum energy E allowed for having a black hole and not a naked singularity: the total mass (mass hole +mass particle)… Read more »
Zubilon
Member
Zubilon
March 1, 2012 5:00 PM

The renormalized stress-energy tensor at the leading edge of the warp bubble has been shown to become exponentially unstable over time, rendering it unstable.

See http://arxiv.org/abs/0904.0141v2

And in reference to the above article, the prospect of being blasted by gamma radiation from superluminal space travellers, decelerating carelessly, supports Stephen Hawking’s aversion to making our presence known smile

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 1, 2012 6:06 PM
This is the paper I was thinking of last night, when I was a bit too tired to research it up and get the authors, when I mentioned the demolition of this spacetime configuration by Hawking type of radiation. The central region is separated from the exotic material by the particle horizon of this spacetime. This is similar to a Rindler wedge. The observer in the central region is not causally connected to the exotic matter, so the warp bubble can’t be controlled. Further, the horizon emits a thermal bath of radiation which grows enormously. These types of spacetimes are interesting in order to understand how quantum gravity gives rise to classical spacetimes which are not pathological. By… Read more »
Super Earth
Member
Super Earth
March 3, 2012 2:17 AM

[wrong location]

thefalcone
Guest
thefalcone
March 1, 2012 2:19 AM

You mean considered possible but highly unlikely… as of yet :p

Shawn Schuiteboer
Guest
Shawn Schuiteboer
March 1, 2012 2:41 AM

Since warp occurs in sub-space… I don’t see what the problem is here.

LSAGuy
Guest
LSAGuy
March 1, 2012 3:04 AM

So what you need is some sort of superluminal diode to prevent the energy spike in the same way a conventional diode keeps an energy spike caused by the field collapse when a switch is thrown from damaging the switch itself. Then a sort of capacitor to store the energy so that it could be used to power the next hyperspace jump. There, see, simple.

verified ?
Guest
March 1, 2012 3:16 AM

Oh, you people all deserve this, so badly. Especially the author of that article.

Deejay Nunti
Guest
Deejay Nunti
March 1, 2012 4:11 PM

true, everybody knows that it is forbidden to use warp engines near planetary sistems. First get some distance with the impulse engines, THAN use warp. It`s just commonsense.

verified ?
Guest
March 1, 2012 3:17 AM
Peter
Member
Peter
March 1, 2012 3:57 AM

How about a way to convert any “particles” into plasma and then expel them while driving to keep the energy load down? Small, short-burst warps could be induced along the way to expand the space-time between the ship and any accumulated particles.

Super Earth
Member
Super Earth
March 1, 2012 4:01 AM

Next on Sci-fi warfare: Warp missiles that once arrive to the target planet liberate enough radiation to burn the upper atmosphere of it!

Scary!

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