Breaking the universal speed limit

Aditya Rengaswamy


Anyone who has read up on the special theory of relativity knows that the speed of light is considered the speed barrier of the universe. You would need an infinite amount of energy to make a particle with mass travel at this speed. Yet, there are still some far-fetched ideas out there ranging from wormholes to warp tunnels theorizing that we can defy this barrier. What has mainly been a sci-fi dream for decades may actually be gaining some traction in reality.

In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggested that a device doesn’t need to travel at the speed of light by itself to break this speed barrier. Rather, his idea suggests that bending space-time in front of and behind a vessel, rather than propelling it, could result in high-speed travel. Theoretical calculations have shown this hypothetical idea is possible without breaking the current understanding of relativity, but just like wormholes, you would need some exotic matter to distort space-time. Plus, the amount of energy needed to power this mechanism would be equal to the mass-energy of Jupiter. This sort of requirement makes this warp travel practically a dream. However, NASA’s Harold White recently released his idea to lighten up the process.

White argues that the massive energy requirement for the field doesn’t need to be this flat halo shape that requires ridiculous amounts of energy. If you make it into something thicker and curvier, the energy requirement should settle under 1600 pounds. Additionally, if you can oscillate or vibrate this warp field at a consistent speed, the warp may require even less energy.

His findings were presented at the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium, and leaders from around the world are watching to see if this technology can be field-tested within the century.

Instead of taking decades or centuries of travel to visit neighboring stars like Alpha Centauri, a location that is four light years from us, it would take just a few weeks or months. The journey would involve a craft leaving Earth, reaching a safe distance away from civilization, and then turning on its warp speed. Once the craft hits a point close to its destination, it stops and propels its way to reach the final target.

Even though the practical application of this technology is years away, it is still amazing to hear about the potential inventions that the future will hold. All of those science fiction classics ranging from “Star Trek” to “Dr. Who” reveal the imagination and potential of our future. As Doris Lessing once said, “Space or science fiction has become a dialect for our time.” Inventions that were once considered dreams are already coming to fruition, and as the journey of Earth through time matures, the scientific conversations we have will be held on intergalactic scales. Reaching new stars will only be the start of a new future—perhaps galaxy exploration will eventually become reality, too.

Aditya Rengaswamy is a sophomore accounting student at Case Western Re- serve University. He enjoys doing various service projects like Kids Against Hunger, serving on Undergraduate Student Government, and hanging out with his brothers in Theta Chi.