Warp Drive

Is the Faster Than Light Speed Portrayed in Star Trek Possible?

warp drive
Artist's concept of what a warp drive trip would look like. NASA

One of the key plot devices in nearly every Star Trek episode and film is the ability of star ships to travel at light-=speed and beyond. This happens thanks to a propulsion system known in the show as warp drive.

What is Warp Drive?

Warp drive doesn't actually exist yet. But, it's theoretically possible. It allows the ships to get across space by moving faster than the speed of light. As far as we know, that is the ultimate cosmic speed limit.

Nothing can move faster than light. According to Einstein's theories on relativity, it takes an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object with mass up to the speed of light. So, it would appear that having a spacecraft traveling at (or exceeding) the speed of light is strictly impossible.

However, our current understanding of the physics of how light travels does not preclude the possibility of space itself traveling at or beyond the speed of light. In fact, some people who have examined the problem claim that in the early universe space-time expanded faster than the speed of light, if only for a short time. If that's true, warp drive could take advantage of this loophole. The drive would use massive amounts of energy (extracted from matter-antimatter annihilations in the "warp core" of the ship) to encapsulate the starship in a bubble that "warps" the area around it. Space-time behind the vessel is expanded, while the space-time continuum is compressed in front.

The net result is that the ship is pushed along as space-time expands and contracts around it.

Here's another way to think about how the warp drive works: the starship is effectively stationary relative to a local area of space-time. The ship itself isn't moving, but the fabric of the universe is and that carries the starship along with it.

A happy byproduct of this is that the starship can get around such undesirable effects as time dilation and massive acceleration effects on the human body, which would really mess up the science fiction story lines.

Using warp drive would be different from traveling across the universe using wormholes. These are theoretical structures that allow spaceships to travel from one point to another by tunneling through hyperspace. Effectively, they would let you take a shortcut, since the ship remains bound to normal space-time.

Could We Someday Have Warp Drive?

There is nothing in our current understanding of theoretical physics that prohibits a warp-type drive from being developed. However, it the whole idea is still in the realm of speculation. People ARE working on ways to achieve such a development. However, they have to solve a LOT of issues to make it happen. 

In order to create and sustain a warp bubble (which is a challenge if you don't want to destroy your ship when you deploy it) a theoretical type of matter would have to exist with negative mass. We don't even know if negative mass (or negative energy) exists anywhere in the universe. If they do exist, they haven't been "found", yet.

But, suppose that such matter did exist. Then, one could devise a warp drive system. In fact, at least one such design has garnered attention: the Alcubierre drive.

In that iteration of the warp drive, tthe starship would ride a "wave" of space-time, much like a surfer rides a wave on the ocean. But just because a drive system could be theoretically possible, does not mean that it is possible. The sheer amount of energy required to create the necessary expansion and contraction of space-time would exceed the output of the Sun.

Even with a power source as potent as the one described in the Star Trek series, having a warp drive is a long way off. At the very least, we don't have an evolved enough understanding about the physical nature and composition of the universe to really evaluate what is possible in the realm of faster-than-light-travel.

It will take time and a lot of research to move forward to the point where humans could develop warp drive. Until then, we'll have to enjoy seeing it deployed in science fiction movies and TV shows.

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.