In the article “Warp Drive Research Key to Interstellar Travel”, published on scientific american blog on 23rd April 2014, Mark Alpert writes about the current challanges in the research of interstellar travel.
He begins with the story of Zefram Cochrane, a fictional physicist of the Star Trek universe who invented the warp-drive in the year 2063 allowing the interstellar voyages of the starship Enterprise. This story leads to a real phyiscist, working in NASA’s Johnson space center in Houston, who is researching on the exact same topic. Harold “Sonny” White designed a tabletop experiment to create tiny distortions in spacetime. If his experiment succedes it could lay the foundation of a system that allows spacecrafts to sidestep the physical speedlimit of lightspeed. Instead of increasing the speed.of the spacecraft, a bubble of warped spacetime is formed around the craft so that it could cross the vast distances between stars in a matter of weeks.
Mark writes that it is heartening to know that, besides the critisim of other physicists who do not believe in the success of White’s idea, the government has spent $50,000 anyway to explore this possibility to fullfill the dream of interstellar travel. A dream that is shared by a suprising number of people who hold academic conferences on this topic and found organizations like the 100 Year Starship project, the Tau Zero Foundation and Icarus Interstellar, that seek to lay the groundwork for an unmanned interstellar mission that could be launched by the end of the century. This would be helpful to explore the slew of earthlike planets habitable for humans discovered by astronomers over the recent years.
With traditional technology probes would take thousands of years to reach planets in other solar systems. As an example the article mentions NASA’s Voyager 1, traveling at 38,610 miles per hour, that has left our solar system in 2012 after completing it’s primary mission to investigete the Jupiter, Saturn and their moons. With that speed it would take 70,000 years until Voyager 1 reaches any of the nearby stars that might harbor habitable planets.
As an alternative to the warp-drive, the article referes to a mission prooposed by Icarus Interstellar using nuclear fusion power for propulsion which is considered as a more realistic approach by many interstellar enthusiasts. Used properly it would allow speeds thousand of times faster than the Voyager 1. But the technology is not ready yet as researchers tried the last 50 years to use it in a power plant without success. Also the huge amount of fuel requiered for traveling these vast distances presents researchers with a big problem which is aggrevated by the heavy shielding, needed to protect the spacecraft against stardust collisions at high speeds, and decelerating from these high speeds. With regard to these enormous difficulties Mark tries to explain the paradox first noted by physiscist Enrico Fermi in 1950 that even if intelligent life in universe is common, extraterrestrials perhaps never visited earth because it is so hard to get here.
The article finishes with an argument by advocates of interstellar travel which states that planetary catastrophes threaten the long term survival of the human race, thus we must find a solution despite the difficulties. With this argument Mark comes back to the Star Trek analogy and states that we need to adopt the motto of starship Enterprise: “to boldly go where no man has gone bewfore”.