Problems with Warp Speed

An artist's rendition of a spaceship traveling at warp speed.
Les Bossinas/NASA
An artist's rendition of a spaceship traveling at warp speed.

So Einstein helped the "Star Trek" writers manipulate space in a science fictional universe, but is it actually possible to build a spaceship that could propel people across vast galaxies in a relatively short period of time?

Physicist Miguel Alcubierre has suggested the use of so-called "exotic matter," a theoretical type of matter with negative energy. If it could be found or created, the exotic matter would do the job of repelling space and time and creating the gravitational field.

Unfortunately, that's as far as it goes for possible fuel sources -- there are more problems than solutions when it comes to the concept of powering warp speed. Even if the Enterprise were to travel at sublight speeds, known as impulse drive to "Star Trek" fans, the amount of fuel and energy needed to travel quickly through space would be too much for a single starship. The impulse drive of the Enterprise is powered by nuclear fusion, the same kind of reaction that lights up the sun and creates huge explosions from certain nuclear bombs. According to Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and author of "The Physics of Star Trek," if Captain Kirk wanted to travel at half the speed of light (150,000 kilometers per second), the starship would need to burn 81 times its mass in hydrogen, the fuel used for nuclear fusion. The technical manual for "Star Trek: The Next Generation" lists the Enterprise as more than 4 million metric tons in weight, so the ship would need more than 300 million metric tons of hydrogen just to move forward. Of course, to slow down to a stop, the starship would need yet another 300 million metric tons of fuel, and a potential trip across galaxies would need 6,642 times the mass of the "Enterprise."

Some people have proposed a system in which a device gathers hydrogen as the starship travels, foregoing the necessity to store huge amounts of fuel, but Krauss suggests this device would have to be about 25 miles wide to capture anything worth using. Even though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the galaxy, there's only about one atom of hydrogen for every cubic square inch.

Making the warp drive work would be another thing. The warp drive in "Star Trek" gets its power by reacting matter with antimatter -- the result is complete annihilation and the release of pure energy. Since antimatter isn't very common throughout our universe, the Federation would have to produce it, something we can do today at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois. Again, the problem turns out to be a issue of the amount of fuel necessary to power a warp drive. Kruass notes that Fermilab is capable of producing 50 billion antiprotons in one hour -- enough to produce 1/1000 of a watt. You would need 100,000 Fermilabs to power a single light bulb. Producing enough antiprotons to bend the space-time continuum looks near impossible as far as our current technology goes.

Although there's little chance during this century of humans developing a spaceship that could bend space and travel to distant galaxies faster than the speed of light, this hasn't stopped scientists and fans of the series alike to think about the potential. As recent as November 2007, the British Interplanetary Society brought together several physicists for a conference called "Faster Than Light: Breaking the Interstellar Distance Barrier" [source: Guardian].

The Science of "Star Trek"
As far as science fiction goes, "Star Trek" is well regarded by its fans for sticking to relatively plausible physics. Although no one's come up with a starship that would travel at warp speed, no one's disproved the possibility of such a feat. "Star Trek" has also looked at other big concepts throughout the series, including the notion of time travel through black holes or wormholes. The writers also get several nitpicky details correct, such as the fact that there is no sound in space. While George Lucas includes laser blasts and explosions throughout his "Star Wars" series in order to keep things dramatic, "Star Trek" kept a bit closer to reality by not including sound effects in space.

For lots more information on space and intergalactic travel, see the next page.