Brooke - Astronomy & Astrophysics — 08 February 2013
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Michael Phelps is a Starship
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My friend and mentor, Dr. Eric W. Davis, appeared on cable television to talk about warp drive and interstellar travel on G4 TV’s Attack of the Show! A senior research physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin, Texas, he gave a lecture at the 100-Year Starship Symposium (also on warp drives) that several of us here at Florida Tech attended when our SPS/SEDS group participated in the symposium last year in Orlando. It was just one of the many opportunities a budding physics and space sciences major gets to experience. Because his appearance on the show was a nice wrap-up of his full speech, I want to share it. Many of the following statements come directly from Dr. Davis’ lecture, which can be seen here.

Dr. Davis’ opening explanation of warp drive suggested imagining the ocean as space and Michael Phelps as a starship, trying to swim to Alpha Centauri, which is about 4.3 light years away from Earth. The resistance of the water keeps him under the speed of light, so he is moving quite slowly yet expending a lot of energy and it will take him a few lifetimes to reach his destination. Using rockets to travel through space is analogous to Michael Phelps’ hopeless journey through the ocean of space. Warp drive is based on the ability to travel faster than the speed of light, which is what Phelps needs to get to Alpha Centauri in a timely fashion. To achieve this, “exotic” (or vacuum) energy must be expended rather than energy from fusion or fission. In theory, the starship would take energy from the surrounding vacuum and use it like a bubble, bending space around it so the ship no longer has to travel through space to reach its destination. It’s like Michael Phelps using a surf board rather than swimming through the water; he can travel on top of the water and let it carry him there, instead. So, we let space itself move the ship rather than try and travel through space. It’s just as Scotty says in the new Star Trek movie when Spock shows him his equation for warp speed: “I never thought of space as the thing that was moving!”

If this is such a great way to travel, then why haven’t we done it yet? The problem is in technology development and the massive amounts of vacuum energy required for warp drive to work.  Small amounts of vacuum energy have been produced in labs here on Earth, but vast quantities are required and we just don’t know how to make all of it yet. The technology could take hundreds of years to develop or could be discovered tomorrow. There really isn’t a way to put a timeline on when this kind of space travel may be possible. But once it is, based on his studies in quantum theory, Dr. Davis believes we could possibly go up to 1032 times the speed of light! Once the technology is discovered, there is also the problem of space debris, such as dust and asteroids. Some sort of shielding mechanism would also be needed to deflect things floating around in space.

If warp drive is ever successfully implemented, it will open up many possibilities for interstellar travel. We already know of a couple hundred Earth-like exoplanets (planets outside our Solar system) that may be able to support life and that may already have some kind of extraterrestrial lifeforms living there. We won’t really know until we can get there. Other planets capable of sustaining life could be used for colonization or to acquire more supplies and resources for Earth. Interstellar travel would also increase our knowledge of physics, astrophysics and technology. Overall, once the breakthrough occurs, many opportunities will open for mankind. I hope to see that day!

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