Space Flight

Will real-life space ships ever be able to go 'warp speed' Star Trek-style?
Answered by Robert Lamb and Science Channel
  • Robert Lamb

    Robert Lamb

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Robert Lamb Senior Writer, HowStuffWorks

    Sure, the starship Enterprise never had a problem traveling faster than the speed of light. Will we ever pull this off in real life? The answer is a resounding "maybe."

    According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, light is the universal speed limit. Nothing travels through space faster, and approaching it causes time to slow down and mass to become infinite. Fortunately for all you Trekkies, warp speed provides a theoretical loophole. While nothing can travel through space faster than light, there are no speed restrictions on space itself.

    See, instead of moving a spaceship through space, warp speed travel would entail accelerating a bubble of space, a bubble that just happens to contain aspaceship. The warp bubble, not the spaceship, does all the speeding in this theoretical scenario.

    Scientists know this sort of thing is possible because space expanded faster than the speed of light during the inflationary period following the big bang. Unfortunately, in order to engage a warp engine, we'd need an absurd amount of energy to power it.

    Earlier theoretical warp speed models required energy equal to all the mass in the entire universe -- an impossible gas bill, to say the least. Over the years, theoretical physicists have managed to work the estimated fuel requirements down to the mass of the planet Jupiter.

    Still, the technology required for warp travel is far from our current capabilities. For the foreseeable future, it will remain the stuff of science fiction.

    Captain James T. Kirk
    Captain James T. Kirk (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

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  2. On Star Trek, the U.S.S. Enterprise's warp drive is powered by reacting matter with antimatter, resulting in the release of pure energy. Here in this universe, antimatter isn't very common, though the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois has made developments in that area. The problem lies in the amount of fuel needed to power a warp drive.

    Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and author of "The Physics of Star Trek," says that even though Fermilab can produce 50 billion antiprotons per hour, it would take 100,000 Fermilabs to power even a single light bulb. Based on those stats and the limitations of our current technology, the chances of bending the space-time continuum don't look too promising.

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