What's up with NASA's warp drive spaceship?

Here's the best way I can sum up this story: Yes, some NASA scientists are working on a design for a warp drive. No, that doesn't mean warp drives are real.

Warp drives — as a purely theoretical thing and/or science-fiction plot device — involve manipulating space-time to allow a spaceship to go faster than the speed of light. It's basically loophole that would allow you to get around those pesky laws of physics. Swiss bank account:taxes::Warp drives:speed of light. You get the picture.

Harold White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center is currently leading an effort to design a warp drive space ship. But, as Amy Teitel explains in a story for Vice's Motherboard, the fact that this is happening does not necessarily mean a real working warp drive is possible. It's more about the fact that NASA is partly in the business of letting really smart people try things that are kind of crazy and unlikely, if they can back up the idea with a reasonably plausible hypothesis. Speculative research is a thing that happens.

The problem is that breaking the light barrier isn’t at all like breaking the sound barrier. The sound barrier–properly, the aerodynamic effects of pressure waves interacting with a body as it approaches the speed of sound–was broken with a cleverly engineered aircraft and an at-the-time state of the art rocket engine.

Bell’s X-1 was, importantly, a physical aircraft made of matter, not made of sound. But the atoms and molecules that make up all matter are connected by electromagnetic fields, and that’s the same stuff that light is made of. So when it comes to breaking the light barrier, it’s like breaking through light with light (sort of… ask Brian Greene). As NASA poses the question, “How can an object travel faster than that which links its atoms?” It’s a very different matter.

Another issue special relativity brings up is the light speed barrier. Moving takes energy, and the faster you move the more energy you use. So, theoretically, to move at the cosmic speed limit of light you need an infinite amount of energy. That’s a distinct barrier if there ever was one.

Read the rest of the story at Vice's Motherboard


  1. Tesla invented the warp drive in 1927, but the FBI suppressed it on behalf of the railroad trusts!

    People who tell you not to believe this have been brainwashed with Edison’s DC current mind ray.

  2. That illustration doesn’t illustrate space-time warp travel well.  Behind the ship, space is both expanded AND contracted; and in front of it, space is both contracted AND expanded.  Net warp = zero, as evidenced by the straight verticals running through the middle of both warp fields.

      1. Indeed, it’s frustrating when people create speculative materials on traversing space-time, when they clearly haven’t even got a handle on primitive dimensions.  Did anyone else also notice that the gridlines inside the warp field do NOT intersect with the gridlines outside the warp field?  This indicates that this “warp drive” illustration shows a spacecraft that isn’t bending time and space – it is completely independent of it!

        1. Tomorrows Children was a Star Trek book before there were Star Trek books.  It goes into detail about how warp drive works.  One of the main points was that it really did create an independent universe.

  3. Note that physically, the big limiting factor in warp drive is that if a warp bubble doesn’t exist naturally, then creating one requires exotic, and possibly tachyonic, matter. So for now, purely speculative, unless NASA *really* knows something we don’t.

    1.  From what I gathered from a different article on this subject – the math works out and it was the energy needed that was impossible – further research found that a change in how the ‘bubble’ was created used fractions of the energy that was originally thought to require (that is the first go at it required all the energy in the planet Jupiter – now it should work on a voyager sizeish craft with only 1.5kg of fuel – big difference).

      The article talked about the exotic matter much of it being antimatter – but we already create antimatter today – so apparently the ability to create the ‘fuel’ isn’t outside our means – currently no one really has a use for the stuff outside experiments so it’s expensive and hard to make – but if humanity has one thing going for it – once a use for something is found we tend to be good at the ‘make it efficient’ thing.

      1. The warp-bubble drive does in fact require exotic matter that possess negative mass. At least that was a requirement in the last several articles I’ve read.

        A common misconception is that antimatter has negative mass, but all evidence thus far indicates that it has regular, positive mass, and that the only difference it has from regular matter is that it has inverted charge.

        As far as I’ve read, the closest thing to negative mass that’s been discovered is a result of the Casimir effect.

      2. Antimatter is not exotic matter, it just has the opposite charge as normal matter and makes for a really good energy storage mechanism.
        Warp drive requires both expanding and contracting spacetime. Contracting space is easy if you have enough energy and mass: energy and mass make spacetime contract automatically. Expanding it requires the opposite: *negative* total energy density. No known substance can do that, so physicists call it “exotic” matter. It has never been observed, and no theory I’m aware of predicts its existence. But it could exist, there’s no law against it..

  4. If they ever make a breakthrough, I’ll celebrate by going to by closet and going straight to plaid.

  5. Despite my skepticism, I try to keep in mind that one sure way to not travel interstellar distances is to harness the power of grumbling, “it’ll never work!”

    1. I agree, people once (not that long ago relatively speaking) said that circumnavigating the Earth couldn’t be done. There is a pretty good list here of bad predictions and ‘impossible’ things 


      With no disrespect to the writer and perhaps because I *want* it to work, I’m inclined to cheer for the person who works for NASA rather than be deflated by the person who writes for Vice.

  6. Given that speed is relative, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that speeds faster-than-light are ALREADY happening?  The edges of the universe are receding from us faster than the speed of light, which is (possibly one reason) why we can’t look through any telescope and see the beginning of the universe (or, indeed, its “end”(/edge)). 

    Another thing that moves faster than the speed of light is a pulsar beam – given a sufficiently distant circumference!  These rotating stars are like “lighthouses”, emitting a beam of EMF.  Although the angular speed of such a beam is constant, the linear speed of the beam increases the further away you get from the source (i.e. the speed at which the beam of EMF travels on a given circumference).  You can prove this with a torch or laser pointer: if you shine it on your hand and make a movement of 5 degrees, the light spot only moves a few mm or cm.  If you shine it on a wall 10m away, and make the same 5 degree move, the light spot moves much further!

    So… if you were to create a wall on which a pulsar shone its beam at a sufficient distance from the pulsar, you would be able to literally watch the pulsar beam travelling along that wall faster than the speed of light. :)

    1. No individual particle/wave in that beam would be travelling faster than the speed of light, however.

      1. Yes, I’m aware of that.  It’s more of a personal thought-experiment, a bit like Schroedinger’s Cat, to conceptualise seeing “something” moving faster than light.  :)

        1. Another interesting feature you might be interested in is relativistic beaming produced by quasars. Relativistic beams pointing towards the earth have the illusion of traveling faster than light.

          As far as I understand from my cursory reading of several Wikipedia articles, the apparent superlumial motion of relativistic jets is an artifact of the doppler effect.

          According to the articles, polar jets from active galactic nuclei have been measured to have velocities as great as 9.6c and 6c.

  7. There are various competing theories about how to exceed the speed of light. My favourite is Douglas Adams’ theory of bad news:

    “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light. Nothing, that is, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.

    The Hingefreel people of Arkentoofel Minor Once tried to build spaceships that were powered by bad news. But they didn’t work particularly well, and were so extremely unwelcome when they arrived, that there wasn’t much point setting off in the first place.”

  8. Even better news: they’re assigning the project to a promising young engineer named Zephram Cochrane

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