Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sometimes Warped Thinking Is A Good Thing

The Star Ship Enterprise could achieve faster
than light travel due to its warp drive. Only the
saucer was the ship, everything else was just for
creating the warp bubble.
Alpha Centauri is the closest solar system to Earth. It has at least one exoplanet orbiting the binary A and B stars, so it could be our first stop outside our solar system. Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years away, so traveling at the average speed of a space shuttle, it would take 165,000 years to reach it. Even at the speed of light it would take 4.37 years. But the Starship Enterprise could do this in a matter of days. Is that really possible? Approaching the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, science says--------could be.

The warp drive on Star Trek allowed them to travel faster than light, a phenomenon now believed to be at least possible. For decades physicists believed that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, that light speed was the upper limit of out universe. It was an idea put forth by Einstein, so people tended to accept it.

While the limit may still be true for the parameters that Einstein placed on it (traveling in space-time), there may be ways around it. For instance, what if you expanded or contracted space-time itself? Or what if you attached yourself to the power of the expanding universe, it's speeding up to such a degree that it will at some point be traveling faster than the speed of light.

So - right off the bat we have a Star Trek concept (faster than light travel) that at one time seemed silly, but now - not so much. Maybe there is more to this warp drive than we imagine. Let’s see how Star Trek imagined it and then how it may actually come to be.

Mr. Scott’s babies – his warp core, dilithium crystal, matter/antimatter engine and warp drive really break down to two basic principles. The energy to create the warp was derived from harnessing the power of matter/antimatter collisions.

In Star Trek, dilithium crystals somehow gave them
control of the matter/antimatter annihilations in
the engine. In real life, dilithium is usually a gas
made of two lithium ions. But University of
Huntsville (AL) scientists have made a stable form
of lithium, that, along with deuterium, can be used
as fuels for an impulse engine. Not the same thing,
but still dang cool.
For particles of matter – protons and electrons – there are antimatter equivalents, antiprotons and positrons. They are equal particles, it’s just that their charges are reversed. Antiprotons are negatively charged and positrons are positively charged electrons. Sound like science fiction? Well, it’s not – and many people are still alive due to antimatter.

Some chemical elements naturally give off small amounts of positrons, and we can use the energy of their annihilating collisions with electrons to achieve positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the human body. PET is a powerful tool for visualizing the 3-D functional ability of human organs and tissues and is important for diagnosis of many diseases.

So don’t scoff at antimatter – Star Trek had it exactly right. In fact, CERN in Europe made anti-hydrogen atoms last year – although they didn’t last long. And the Santilli telescope has confirmed the presence of antimatter galaxies at the edges of the visible universe. That issue resolved, let’s move on to how antimatter was used in Star Trek.

When a particle of matter meets its opposite, they annihilate one another and release lots of energy. The warp antimatter engine on the Enterprise used heavy hydrogen, called deuterium, and its antimatter equivalent as their power source.

They had to keep the antimatter in a strong magnetic field so that it wouldn’t touch any matter (except the deuterium they wanted it to), otherwise it would annihilate the warp core and destroy the ship. This is the containment Scotty was always yelling about.

Because E=mc2 can go both directions, the
annihilation of a up quark and an anti-up quark
produces energy, but that energy can fuse into
gluons and the release matter in the form of a top
and anti-top quarks. So the universe is till producing
antimatter. Look up how quarks help form protons,
neutrons and electrons.

Matter/antimatter engines are coming closer to being real. A Case Western/Kent State paper from 2012 described the concept for a beamed core antimatter propulsion engine using annihilation products to produce thrust. The computer simulations stated that the engine could be produced with today’s technology. This is another example of how Star Trek got it right - and had it first.

The whole purpose of the matter/antimatter energy was to use the released energy to run the ship’s systems and to produce plasma.  Plasma isn’t science fiction either – it’s matter that has been stripped of its electrons. A positive hydrogen ion is just a single proton that has lost its electron – this is plasma, although you could do it with larger atoms as well. Neon lights glow because the electricity strips the electrons from neon gas – that’s plasma as well. On a very large scale, plasma repels matter with electrons, so it can create sort of a vacuum around whatever is creating it.

The Star Trek plasma was sent through the warp nacelles (those cigar shaped pieces to each side of the hull) to generate a plasma bubble around the ship. This bubble would warp space-time around the ship and allow it to travel faster than the limits within space-time. Again, not so far from possibility.

NASA and others are developing wings and
fuselages that generate plasma bubbles on their
own. This creates lift, reduces drag, eliminates a
radar signal, and….. glows!
There is speculation that some Russian jets (SU-37) of a couple decades ago used a plasma bubble to create a stealth capability and reduce drag on the fuselage. This possibility was confirmed in 2000 in a paper in the Journal of Thermophysics and Heat Transfer. So, on a small scale, plasma could reduce drag and speed up jet planes. On a large scale, could it warp space-time and allow a ship to travel faster than light in a bubble?

In 1994, a Mexican physicist named Miguel Alcubierre did the math to determine if this possible. Called the Alcubierre hypothesis, or Alcubierre warp drive, his math says it is possible to warp space-time around a ship, while leaving unwarped space-time inside the ship, so that the crew would experience normal time flow. About 10 years ago NASA rated this at the conjecture level, but it has moved to reasoned speculation. For scientists, this is a big change.

The reasons for the move was that the original calculations suggested that a huge amount of energy would be needed – equal to that released if all of Jupiter’s mass was converted to pure energy. But more recent changes to the shape of the warp disc need (more round than football shaped) reduced the amount of energy needed to a few thousand pounds (converted to energy – that’s still a whole bunch).

This is conceptual design of the IXS Enterprise, and
warp drive ship. The circular parts will generate the
warp bubble instead of the nacelles behind and on
each side of the original Enterprise. Despite that
difference in shape, Roddenberry’s Enterprise
was pretty doggone close.
NASA believes in this concept enough to have started designs on a warp drive ship (of course it's called the IXS Enterprise) and on experiments to generate and detect warp bubbles. Headed by NASA scientist Harold White, the program still has some conceptual problems to overcome. The largest one, and stick with me here, is this. If you want to generate a negative energy warp/plasma bubble around the ship, then that would include putting some plasma in front of the ship.

Even if the warp allows you to travel faster than light within the bubble, the front edge of the bubble would have to be maintained, meaning that you would have to keeping building the bubble in front of the ship at a rate faster than light speed. Since that would be outside the warp bubble, it would then break the laws of physics in space-time. We’re back to the limit that nothing can move faster than light. Darn you, Einstein!

Next week, yet another Star Trek idea that is coming closer to reality – is a transporter just a pipe dream, or a pipe from one place to another?

Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD
As Many Exceptions As Rules

S. Beghella-Bartoli, P.M. Bhujbal, A. Nas (2015). Confirmation of Santilli's detection of antimatter galaxies via a telescope with concave lens. America Journal of Modern Physics, 4 (1)
Alcubierre, M. (1994). The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity Classical and Quantum Gravity, 11 (5) DOI: 10.1088/0264-9381/11/5/001

Ganiev, Y., Gordeev, V., Krasilnikov, A., Lagutin, V., Otmennikov, V., & Panasenko, A. (2000). Aerodynamic Drag Reduction by Plasma and Hot-Gas Injection Journal of Thermophysics and Heat Transfer, 14 (1), 10-17 DOI: 10.2514/2.6504

H. White (2013). Warp Field Mechanics 101 Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 66, 242-247

Ronan Keane, & Wei-Ming Zhang (2012). Beamed Core Antimatter Propulsion: Engine Design and Optimization J.Br.Interplanet.Soc., 65 arXiv: 1205.2281v2

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