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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.

  • Darth Qor March 1, 2012, 4:41 AM

    A simple navigational rule requiring warp vessels to drop out of warp a safe distance from a star system and then proceed using sub-light propulsion would easily solve this problem. It also eliminates the risk of driving a vessel into a planet, asteroid, or moon at while still at warp, which would be quite a disaster for the crew of the ship one would think.

  • cardshoot March 1, 2012, 5:44 AM

    Since it is all theoretical, perhaps the build-up is negated by the particles being deflected to the side off the forward part of the bubble like water off of the prow of a boat. Then there would be no noticeable build-up. Did they do calculations to that effect or just as if the front of the bubble is scooping everything up like the bucket on a front-end loader?

  • Danny Cruz March 1, 2012, 7:39 AM

    Wow. I’m as remote of an astronomer as anyone can be. Specially amongst all you guys. And I somehow got sucked into reading this story. And I must say… wow! That was quite fascinating! O.o Never could have thought something like warp speed could ever be considered possible. Much less the destructive effects of it! But very fascinating!

  • Quincy Jones March 1, 2012, 8:05 AM

    We are so small minded. Talking about space time and bending it… think about the bubbles of energy surrounding everything within the Galaxy! The force that makes each creator spaced from another, and holds clouds of debris near the edge of gravity. The real atmospheres of Suns (extend well beyond the planets) A sun makes so much energy… interacting with other stars with planets. We can’t just cut through it. We have to ride it.
    Space travel was never meant to be sped up. But think of how quickly an electron jumps from one shell to the next by absorbing energy… [A vessel should be able to flash from one galaxy to the next. or even one universe to the next. That would be a "multidimensional" trip.]
    The Sun should be able to do this if it could be realigned against the will of the universe. It sits where it is and moves as it does through space because of the Galaxy’s sphere of influence that all within it is subjected to. A space ship ought to only need a small orb at it’s center. One you can spin and orient at will. The orb needs to be extremely dense material.
    And you need to collect enough solar energy concentrated upon this orb. (So the orb needs to be designed to absorb that energy into increasingly denser material)
    If you had a large saucer, you could mount lenses to collect and condense into “pipes” that channel it together like an LED array. This makes the ship shallow. Very big diameter, not very tall. As few impediments on the energy as possible means straight path.

    This vessel cannot land on planets or even be built on one.
    It is powered like a planet’s core, only, you can manipulate it to move the ship around using the Sun and the planets’ influences. Simple repulsion and attraction.
    If you figure out how to tune it’s emission you could potentially target planets and attract your ship towards them. Propel towards the next star system by shutting down the drive just before entering it’s sphere. Spinning of dense energetic material is very important to gravity generation. Pressure can compensate for density.
    Think about how much pressure the Earth’s mantle being pulled inwards by gravity-creates on the core. This would make plasma states likely. The sun constantly bombarding half of the Earth with energy. Starting cold, it would probably take millions of years to heat to it’s current state. But having started hot, the Sun likely slows Earth-core-entropy greatly. The question is, will the sun explode before entropy cools the Earth too much that the Ocean cycles die slowly disintegrating a complex system called Life? Are we even monitoring conditions at the bottom of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans?

    The simple truth is: We are short lived for space travel. Our “Gods” lived for thousands of years. Maybe even more. We would have to really raise our children right, and get ethics under control… to really sustain life for the trip that takes generations. Stasis is viable too. The real magic comes when you start imagining the source of existence. The thing that all matter is connected with and how it is capable of reintegrating your consciousness on a grand scale, with a collective of sorts that sits far beyond the reaches of this tiny universe.
    To the real “God” of all, we are infinitesimal specks of nothing comparable to dust within the atoms making the bacteria in his Gut.
    We’re supposed to be in the image and likeness, yet we can’t recognize the trillions of individual lives we are responsible for tending to daily and being in touch with. We take it for granted and are wrought with sin. God is connected with that of which God is made. Accessible to any who would align their self with the source where all knowledge may be found. Repent!

    • magnus.nyborg March 1, 2012, 8:44 AM

      Completely irrelevant and off-topic rant.

    • Dima R March 1, 2012, 9:59 AM

      I think it would be easier to hack into the programming code of the Universe and just modify your present location. Just make sure it has the right temperature and pressure, unless you could mod yourself?? Or call Keanu Reeves.. Just don’t rely on God, who’s too busy playing galaxy-pinball somewhere far away.

      • nafin March 1, 2012, 6:20 PM

        Search for RAM values of *location* associated with *your name*?

        If I’m in the system anyway… set value “Nafin” HP 9999

    • Hydargos March 1, 2012, 2:19 PM

      Thanks. You and I are somehow connected by a similar way of thinking about “our” existence.

      • Olaf2 March 1, 2012, 8:07 PM

        Are you talking to yourself?

    • ikma March 1, 2012, 2:56 PM


    • Olaf2 March 1, 2012, 5:07 PM

      Is this how someone smoking drugs sound like?

    • Torbjörn Larsson March 1, 2012, 7:16 PM

      I still don’t think creationists should comment on science sites.

  • Todaydownload March 1, 2012, 10:42 AM

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  • Prof. Michael O. Zimmermann March 1, 2012, 1:27 PM

    He, Carbon Copies!
    All you have to do is to learn how to fold Space, no hyper speed needed, just point in the right direction, move slowly ahead and shhht, arrive!
    Nothing to it.

    • StockportJambo March 1, 2012, 1:41 PM

      That’s basically how an Alcubierre drive works. You can’t travel faster than light, but if you fold space ahead and behind you you get pulled along on the wave, whilst still travelling at sub-light speed.

      • krenshala March 1, 2012, 3:45 PM

        Alcubierre’s method requires you travel from point A to point B. What MOZ is recommending is to make points A and B the same point, and travel to it/them. Saves a whole lot of time, though it would probably require the same amount of energy. :D

        • TheMan March 2, 2012, 2:23 PM

          Would it though? If you’re standing at point A, and point B is 1,000,000 miles away, getting from point A to point B would require a considerable amount of energy. However, as you stated, if you can bend that distance making point A and point B the same point, you would be arriving at point B no later than you left point A.

          Unless you’re referring to the energy needed to bend space in the first place. In which I have no logical explanation on the energy needed for that.

  • zetetic elench March 1, 2012, 2:18 PM

    science fiction is a reaction, in many cases, to the realization of the fact that we are earthbound and will die earthbound. the imagination reels and attempts to find a way. the best sci-fi hews to plausibility, as opposed to fantasy. there is no literary device that will destroy dramatic tension as well as a time machine. (just go back and fix it and where are the visitors from the future?)

    we will only visit the stars in our imaginations and learn of them from incident photons upon our instruments.

    however, through some alchemy, a keyboard can generate vast amounts of cash.

    • TheMan March 2, 2012, 2:18 PM

      Fully agree. Space travel is not within the current realm of possibility. Assuming we even had the technology in present day to start the exploration, it would take hundreds, even thousands of years to perfect it as the unknowns are far too great for our measly human minds to comprehend.

      A lot of space travelers would die, and shortly thereafter, it would basically be a Banzai mission just to retrieve very minimal amounts of information on each trek.

      Unfortunate, but reality. Plus, I don’t know that the space aliens would care too much for a Walmart in deep space. We’d just end up spending more time trying to figure out ways to monetize the Universe than to actually explore it. Then we’d end up finding oil on another planet and would immediately have to declare war on it and invade the crap out of it. Thus, destroying it anyways, so what’s the point?

      Humans today are just not mentally ready for space travel. Our priorities are also our restrictions.

  • shootist MP March 1, 2012, 2:21 PM

    Everyone knows that real super-luminal space drives cannot be used in the vicinity of a gravity well. This is well settled “hard” sci-fi.

    And now, not so sci-fi.

    From http://www.jerrypournelle.com

    Metamaterial-based model of the Alcubierre warp drive

    Igor I. Smolyaninov (Submitted on 28 Sep 2010)

    Abstract: Electromagnetic metamaterials are capable of emulating many exotic space-time geometries, such as black holes, rotating cosmic strings, and the big bang singularity. Here we present a metamaterial-based model of the Alcubierre warp drive, and study its limitations due to available range of material parameters. It appears that the material parameter range introduces strong limitations on the achievable “warp speed”, so that ordinary magnetoelectric materials cannot be used. On the other hand, newly developed “perfect” magnetoelectric metamaterials are capable of emulating the physics of warp drive gradually accelerating up to 1/4c.


    • Olaf2 March 1, 2012, 5:10 PM

      Hold on a minute, emulating a black hole does not mean that it IS a balck hole.
      It is only emulating a property that is equivalent of a black hole. 99.999% of that material does not act at all like a black hole.

      • Aaron Davis March 2, 2012, 7:58 PM

        In the case of building a device like an optical cloak based on black holes, where you are only interested in exploiting a few specific exotic properties, it doesn’t matter if you emulate a black hole perfectly as long as you get the relevant parts right. It’s even possible that you could reduce or eliminate the the drawbacks of the Alcubierre warp drive with nothing more than better materials research.

        • Duncan Ivry March 4, 2012, 2:55 AM

          As far as I know — from the paper mentioned above –, there is (still) no way to make physically relevant conclusions from this metamaterial approach to what happens around a real black hole. For me this would mean, that they did *not* get the relevant parts right. I’m afraid, it’s a dead-end street.

          • lcrowell March 4, 2012, 3:52 PM

            I comment on this above. The analysis is done from a particular frame where the body starts off at zero velocity. By doing this the analysis does not appear to take into account the covariant transformation of the embedding spacetime.


          • Duncan Ivry March 5, 2012, 2:35 AM

            Your explanation is great, but I can’t see how it addresses my point that “there is (still) no way to make physically relevant conclusions” from theory to reality. For this we would need (at least) experimental observations.

            For example the theory of relativity is supported by a lot of observations nowadays, and from the outset there have already been serious and promising suggestions for experiments. In the case of the metamaterial approach I don’t see anything like this — not even suggestions — in the paper mentioned above or anywhere else. For clarity let me emphasize: something allowing physically relevant conclusions from theory to reality.

            May be, I don’t recognize it. Do you know something about the point I made? Is there more than research in a cloud of formulae?

          • lcrowell March 5, 2012, 3:08 PM

            This metamaterial approach is really a sort of phenomenological “gadget.” It amounts to using one form of physics to model another form of physics. The results are curious, for it implies a limiting velocity. I think a more complete analysis would show that the limiting velocity is the speed of light. If the Alcubierre warp drive could be derived that obeys the Hawking-Penrose energy conditions, maybe violating this for some local or false vacua and obeying the condition globally, with a warp velocity v < c, then this spacetime configuration is plausible.


          • Duncan Ivry March 5, 2012, 9:09 PM

            Thank you for your answer, but, except for your first two statements, to which I completely agree, we talk about different things, I think ;-)

        • lcrowell March 4, 2012, 3:48 PM

          I will have to read the paper again. As I recall the model is set within a certain “frame,” which is the frame of the material. The limiting velocity is v = c/4, but this is within the frame of the accelerated object with v = 0 at the start. An observer on another frame with velocity u observes this object accelerate to

          V = (v + u)/(1 + vu/c^2)

          If this observer watches the object reach terminal velocity in its initial frame v = c/4 from a frame moving at xc, x < 1,

          V = (x + 1/4)c/(1 +x/4).

          From a frame moving near the speed of light the Alcubierre warp drive can only approach the speed of light.

          There is then something odd about this, for we can suppose from a starting frame that the object accelerates to near c/4. We then reset the problem according to an observer moving with u = c/4 and do the velocity addition formula

          V = .5c/(1.125) = .444c,

          Then iterate this process by repeating again to find the Alcubierre WD accelerates to a velocity asymptoting to the speed of light.


    • lcrowell March 1, 2012, 6:18 PM

      I remember reading this paper. There are similar papers which use optical metamaterials to emulate black holes, and some people are using Josephson junctions. This is though not the real thing as such. This solid state-optics analogue fall short of being spacetime physics, but is maybe a bit more than a CGI computer simulation.


  • SkyGuide March 1, 2012, 3:59 PM

    Today’s wild thought: Perhaps GRB’s (Gamma-Ray Bursts) – incredibly energetic outbursts now ascribed to extreme stellar phenomenon – are actually Alcubierre drive ships actually dropping out of warp?

    Perhaps GRB’s are indeed proof of SETI?

    • Krakondack March 8, 2012, 2:05 PM

      My thought also. One hell of a sonic boom.

  • Omni Software Inc. March 1, 2012, 4:32 PM

    you could just hop around multiple times to keep the energy level low…

    • Chrontius Lameth March 2, 2012, 8:25 PM

      Set warp drives to stutter?

      • Raimo Hokkanen March 8, 2012, 4:48 AM

        Multiple jumps. Call it a jump drive.

  • quckan March 1, 2012, 4:39 PM

    Thanks for the information.


  • Chris Morrow March 1, 2012, 5:49 PM

    This is why we have deflector dishes.

    • Otto March 6, 2012, 10:06 PM

      And Bussard Collectors.

  • Torbjörn Larsson March 1, 2012, 7:14 PM

    there are some concepts that play well with currently-accepted physics.

    Not unless you mean “won’t work according to currently-accepted physics.” The general problem with an Alcubierre ‘drive’ is that it isn’t an actual drive. And this paper validates that in spades.

    – If you take the overall spacetime solution and forget for a moment how it is created, if it is created as a ftl bubble it will go ftl. The problem is then how to populate it with mass traveling ftl.

    – If you start with matter generated bubble, say with exotic matter, and forget for a moment how that is created, you have no drive to take it to ftl. This paper shows that all matter, used in a reaction drive say, leaves the bubble at less than ftl velocity and compounds to the problem. According to this paper you have to keep boosting the old fashioned way.

    The paper also shows how the ‘drive’ will act as a large brake. It will be much easier to accelerate only the ship, instead of using up energy to generate a field and accelerate encountered mass as you go.

    Maybe we should rename it “the Alcubierre deflector shield”. Not a very efficient shield at that, mind.

    • Duncan Ivry March 4, 2012, 2:44 AM

      In supporting what Torbjörn Larsson says, I would to add, that, from all I read about Alcubierre’s concept, it *is* purely theoretical. I like to say, it’s research in the formular cloud, and only there. There are no experiments, not even serious suggestions for experiments (correct me someone, please, if there are serious suggestions in the meantime; I would be interested). For me “currently accepted physics” needs much more than what has been achieved regarding Alcubierre’s concept.

  • Peristroika March 1, 2012, 8:19 PM

    Isn’t there still the problem of turning off the warp drive, and then having the compressed space time in front of the ship expand to knock you back to where you started? So you killed your friends for NOTHING!

  • Mastercope March 1, 2012, 9:10 PM

    Actually if you follow these shows warp drive is not used within the heliosphere as it would destroy the ship. Ion drives are used used within a system.

  • Alex Sviridov March 1, 2012, 10:59 PM

    WOW! Amazing!!!

  • Scott March 2, 2012, 12:23 AM

    i would guess that the blast would only have to -graze- the atmosphere of a planet to do damage to a planet.

  • Travis Bickle March 2, 2012, 4:16 AM

    Good thing we have NASA on the job, so that we need never worry about having “warp drive” propulsion technology. Or any other similar advanced technology, for that matter.

    Whew! Thanks, NASA!

  • Mark Mighell March 2, 2012, 1:35 PM

    Faster than Light space travel MOTA Dynamics
    New Development with Magnetic Oscillation Transfer of Atmosphere.

  • DarkGnat March 2, 2012, 1:52 PM

    Well, I guess it’s time to revisit the Tachyon Shunt.