What if you could wake up one morning, get on a ship, and travel to Alpha Centauri within a matter of minutes? That’s the concept behind Alcubierre Drive. Named for physicist Miguel Alcubierre, Alcubierre Drive is an increasingly real concept for traveling faster than light. It’s the real life concept for Star Trek’s Warp Drive.
Ok, let’s clear some things up before we get in too deep. Ordinary objects cannot travel faster than light. Instead, we can exploit a loophole in Einstein’s relativity and simply move space around the craft instead of the craft itself. Relativity states that any object with mass simply cannot travel faster or as fast as light. The object would be torn to pieces long before it hit the “cosmic speed limit.” Though, that’s not the case when space is what’s moving. That’s how Alcubierre drive gets around this rule. There isn't enough strain put on the object to do any damage, because the object itself isn't moving very fast. The best part, scientists are actually working on this.
“We started thinking about it, and we think this is a very natural extension of Einstein’s equations,” said James Hill, an applied mathematician at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Hill is one of the researchers currently working on faster than light travel concepts, and co-authored a paper on the feasibility of such technologies(1).
The problem is, none of the current or past iterations of Einstein’s equations can predict what would happen to an object moving at the speed of light. These equations break down into what are called mathematical singularities(1). In mathematics, a singularity is a point in which a mathematical object is not defined(2). For example, the function:
On a real line, a singularity exists at x=0, where it subsequently “explodes” to ±∞(2). This is just one of several examples of how a mathematical singularity forms. The point at which the singularity exists is not defined, and becomes degenerate. Basically, when an object becomes degenerate, it changes its nature and class to translate into a simpler class. In terms of a circle, as the radius approaches 0, the point (x) becomes a degenerate. A circle is a degenerate class of an ellipse, where the eccentricity has approached 0.In the terms of faster than light travel, the singularity effectively divides the universe into two: one world where everything moves faster than light, and another where everything moves slower(1).
As Hill told LiveScience, “The actual business of going through the speed of light is not defined… The theory we've come up with is simply for velocities greater than the speed of light.”
The world of the mathematical singularity is still largely unknown. “In effect, the singularity divides the universe into two: a world where everything moves slower than the speed of light, and a world where everything moves faster. The laws of physics in these two realms could turn out to be quite different”(1).
“It’s very suggestive that the whole game is different once you go faster than light,” Hill said.
Crossing the light barrier is still unknown territory, but that will not stop new innovations from paving the way to interstellar travel. A little over 100 years ago, powered flight didn't exist. It’s only a matter of time.