There are few in the space and technology sectors who don’t have a passing familiarity with science fiction. But it’s not just the near-term technologies like electric aircraft or super-efficient engines that pique the interest of futurists. From Star Trek to Star Wars, the idea of faster than light weaves into the fabric of the stories. But storytellers never explain how it works. Now, faster than light travel has not just a mathematical background study in feasibility, but an actual patent.
Riding the Wave of the Future
I learned to surf on Kauai’s north shore. I remember the ebb and flow of the waves, the swell of energy all around as I bobbed on the surface. The first time I caught a wave, it was intense. I was caught up in the inherent power of the ocean, the water falling away in front of me and the towering mass of a wave behind me. Little did I know I was living a metaphor for spacetime.
Miguel Alcubeirre is a theoretical physicist who first developed the concept of faster than light travel in a bubble of spacetime. His theory starts with a relatively well-known concept, that energy is equal to mass times the square of the speed of light, or E=MC^2. With the correct application of energy (and therefore mass), it’s possible to bend spacetime. We see this effect every day when we get out of bed as gravity. His theory shows that it’s possible to bend spacetime to create a wave of constantly falling down, and rising up behind. Just like riding the waves at the beach, it would be possible to have a traveler inside this bubble of placid spacetime. The whole anomaly would move faster than light relative to an outside observer.
There’s just one problem.
Faster Than Light Travel and Energy
Alcubeirre’s model of faster than light travel required a huge amount of exotic matter to function. And we aren’t talking about something that is just a lot, but truly unfathomable. Roughly equivalent to the mass of Jupiter, the energy requirements are reminiscent of recent calculations that a ramscoop would need a magnetic field the size of the solar system. So, is the Alcubeirre drive dead?
In 2011 Harold White, a NASA scientist, built on Alcubeirre’s work and found that a much smaller mass of exotic matter might work. This is still outside of the means we have today, but something the size of a city bus is a lot more feasible than a planet.
And What Does All This Get Us?
As with any theoretical technology, there is no tie horizon that is more reliable than a coin flip. But Someone out there thinks it’s close enough for a patent. At the end of April 2020, this patent application surfaced with descriptions of the drive and its potential forms. The details of the engineering are understandably vague. So, what applications of faster than light travel might we have?
First and foremost, the drive would make short work of harnessing the resources of our solar system. There is so much resource pressure on Earth, from food shortages to the raging debate over fossil fuels and battery technology. But if we could effectively mine the asteroid belts and import the metals and volatiles there, we could make the first major strides towards healing the Earth in generations.
And from there, the true diaspora of the species. Imagine a civilization that is constrained only by its own imagination and the spread of the galaxy. Is this a moon shot? Definitely. But once, the idea of flight was heresy. Why not try?