When people find out I’m an astronomer, one of the first questions I’m usually asked is if I want to be an astronaut. I always say no, because human spaceflight has been stuck in Low Earth Orbit since before I was born. I don’t want that; I want to go to distant worlds hundreds of light years away, that would take thousands of years to get to. I want to duck into one of the Pillars of Creation and see the chaotic mess of young star systems that exist therein, and, if possible, visit Planet Zog and see the three moons setting while a tumbleweed-shaped alien rolls around in a gelatinous sea. Basically, I want the Starship Enterprise. So having an actual warp drive would be really cool. Unfortunately, what’s going around in the news is definitely not a warp drive, and most likely not real.
This is actually a story I wrote about before, during an earlier flurry of Eagleworks stories. So, at the risk of repeating myself, here are the basic facts:
1. There are actually two (if not more) very similar devices being tested. The EM drive, which claims to move by generating microwaves in a closed cavity – the microwaves aren’t emitted, but the device moves anyway, and the Cannae drive, which claims to push against the fabric of spacetime itself. The claims are heavily disputed by physicists as basically nonsense.
2. The devices are supposed to create thrust without propellant. This is an obvious violation of Newton’s second law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you want to move something, a force must act on it. In the absence of anything to push on (say, a rocketship in deep space), you have to chuck something out the back. These engines claim to move without any propulsion. These devices would violate the conservation of momentum, and their supposed mechanisms would also violate conservation of energy. All of this is impossible on the level of the Lorax pulling himself up by the hairs on his head and floating up into the sky.
3. They do seem to move, albeit an extremely tiny (and variable) amount. This is surprising, but tests are still underway to determine if this is some amazing hitherto-unknown force of nature or, more likely, the devices pushing against something in the test chamber – the air, the table, magnetic fields from the power cables. One telling feature is that how much the EM drive moves isn’t the same between different tests at different laboratories, which is bad. Imagine pressing down on the gas pedal in your car and not being sure if you’re going to move half an inch a second or 600 miles an hour. This suggests that the drive itself isn’t what’s doing the moving.
4. In my previous post I suggested that the drives were “already proven to not work” because a test article (of the Cannae drive, specifically) with a supposedly critical component missing also produced thrust. That was unfair on my part. That test proved the device didn’t work the way the inventor claimed; it didn’t prove the device did not work at all. Still, as I mentioned above, there are plenty of good scientific reasons to expect that Eagleworks (or one of the other labs) will eventually prove the devices don’t work.
These things aren’t warp drive, though: what they offered was basically unlimited (if slow) propulsion. Sure, if you could accelerate forever, you would eventually get quite CLOSE to the speed of light, but even in the inventor’s wildest dreams, they can’t break the speed of light.
Where did this get conflated with a warp drive? I’m not sure, but I have a few ideas:
- People may be confusing this project with the other one Eagleworks’ leader (Harold “Sonny” White) is famous for: An improvement on the Alcubierre Warp Drive formula. Alcubierre’s warp drive, first proposed in 1994, gets around the limitation that matter can’t travel faster than light, by having a bubble of spacetime itself travel faster than light. Inside the bubble, there’s a pocket of normal space for a spaceship to park itself and be carried along for the ride. Unfortunately, while the math is valid according to General Relativity, it requires crazy and possibly non-existant things like negative energy. It’s not even clear you could survive inside the pocket anyway. And it would effectively make time travel possible, which opens the door to all manner of paradoxes.
- Some of the explanations about how these drives work involves physics (distortion of space-time) that, if true, might make the Alcubierre warp drive possible.
- Press releases have claimed that this drive would open up the exploration of the solar system in a big way. It’s possible that people have replaced “solar system” with “space”; exploring THAT efficiently would require a warp drive. Then again, that hasn’t happened to the Yuri Milner Breakthrough Starshot project, which aims to use powerful lasers to accelerate postage-stamp-sized space probes to 20% of the speed of light, at which point a trip to alpha Centauri would only take 20 years. There, at least, there’s a solid, well-understood method of propulsion: Light exerts pressure, which is force per unit area. That’s the mechanism by which the star eta Carina shot off its outer layers into space, and that’s the mechanism by which solar sails work. Of course, the breakthrough starshot won’t work until we can figure out how to shrink entire space probes to something the size of postage stamps with all the necessary components to take observations and communicate them to us over 4 light years away, AND build lasers that large, AND aim them at postage stamp sized objects in space, AND have the postage stamps not melt when blasted with powerful lasers. But there’s nothing in the laws of physics that say we can’t do that. There just need to be a lot of technological breakthroughs.
I want warp drive as much as (probably more than) the next guy, but this isn’t warp drive. It’s not a faster-than-light propulsion, and it’s not even reliable propulsion when repeated experiments give differing thrusts. It works, in a sense, but every test demonstrates it moving with close to zero thrust… and a really precise experiment will probably demonstrate ACTUAL zero thrust. But Eagleworks (and other labs testing these devices) aren’t done yet. Speculation is rampant, but it’s still all just speculation. Reports will follow, eventually. Unfortunately, given that this is all fringe science, nobody’s spending all that much time on the experiments.