A Starship Enterprise-style warp drive could be a real possibility, according to a non-profit group of scientists and engineers.
Computer models have shown that it's theoretically possible to achieve faster than light travel by warping spacetime in a bubble around a starship - exploiting a loophole in Einstein's Theory of Relativity.
In essence, such a ship would expand space behind it and shrink it in front, so that it could cover huge distances very quickly without actually going faster than light.
"The loopholes, amazingly, can be found in mathematical equations. Those equations are tested using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer," says Harold 'Sonny' White of Icarus Interstellar, advanced propulsion theme lead for NASA's Engineering Directorate.
"At [The Johnson Space Center] JSC, Eagleworks has initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble. Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space time."
Until now, though, it's been believed that the amount of energy required to operate a warp drive would be prohibitive. However, White says that his recent work shows that it's possible to greatly reduce the energy requirement by optimizing the warp bubble thickness, as well as by oscillating the bubble intensity to reduce the 'stiffness' of spacetime.
Instead of requiring a Jupiter-sized amount of exotic matter, he says, as little as 500kg could give a 10-meter bubble an effective velocity of ten times the speed of light.
"The math would allow you to go to Alpha Centauri in two weeks as measured by clocks here on Earth. So somebody’s clock aboard the spacecraft has the same rate of time as somebody in mission control here in Houston might have," he says.
"There are no tidal forces inside the bubble, no undue issues, and the proper acceleration is zero. When you turn the field on, everybody doesn’t go slamming against the bulkhead, which would be a very short and sad trip."