What is Warp Drive?
If we ever hope to travel to planets outside of our solar system we need to develop a system that would allow us to travel at speeds greater than the speed of light.
However, there is a loophole in all of this - Einstein's work merely concludes that mass can not travel faster than the speed of light relative to the medium that is space-time. This may not sound like much of a distinction, but it makes all the difference.
Suppose, then, that instead of attempting to accelerate an object - like a space ship - that one tried to accelerate space-time itself. Currently, our understanding of physics allows for space-time to travel at any speed, without limit.
So it could be possible to design a ship that would be completely stationery and cause the space around the craft to carry it across the Universe at immense speeds, almost like riding a wave on the ocean.
Previous Efforts at Designing a Warp Drive
The concept of a warp drive has always been purely theoretical, existing as merely a series of equations and computer simulations.
In these simulations a football shaped space craft would attach to a ring of some kind that could cause the space around it to become distorted. Specifically the space in front of the ship would contract, pulling the spaceship forward, while the space behind would expand, also driving the spaceship in the desired direction.
The exact composition of the ring needed to create these distortion on a scale large enough to warp space-time around an entire ship is still unknown. However, such distortions can, and have been created on a smaller scale in the laboratory using intense lasers. This technology is unlikely to translate to what is needed on a larger scale, and instead some form of exotic matter may be needed.
The sticking point up until now, though, has been the energy needed to create the distortions. If a ring could be designed to create the needed expansions and contractions the energy needed would be roughly equivalent to the entire mass-energy of the planet Jupiter. Such power generation is unlikely with any technology on the horizon, even on a theoretical level.
There is hope though. A modified version of the older ring design, one that creates more of a donut shape, could prove to be the answer. With the corrected design the energy needed to power the craft would be dramatically reduced, and if the expansion and contraction could be oscillated over time, the energy needed could be lessened even further.
Current estimates predict that the energy needed to power such a system would rival the entire yearly electricity consumption of the world (as of 2008). This sounds like an awful lot, and it is, but it is considerably less than previous designs would call for.
And, the ultimate point of all of this, is that if the design could be further refined to cut down the needed power even more, then it could be feasible to design such a warp drive. While the energy production technology is still out of our reach, for now, at least we are getting closer to being in the realm of possibility.