7 Problems with Wormholes and Warp Drives

After writing and publishing the 6 Realities of Teleportation Star Trek Didn't Warn Us About, I wanted to find out more about other shortcuts for space travel. I did some searching and finally found Professor Cole Miller, who does a lecture on the science behind some of the interesting issues concerning worm holes and something called the Alcubierre Drive. After several emails and a Skype conversation, he has helped me organize my thoughts on this topic and break it down so that I understand these better.


1) Making a worm hole stable will difficult, but people are working on it

wormholex-inset-communityMost theories of making a worm hole stable use dark energy. However, a few scientist think they may have a way around the dark matter problem by avoiding it completely by using superstring theory. But others aren't convinced, quote: “actually it may allow for anything!”, physicist Andres Gomberoff said sarcastically on his Twitter feed.


2) Time Travel might be a problem

Hawking explains there are a few problems with time travel. First is the problem of the grandfather paradox. Some theories of time 12monkeystravel say that we wouldn’t be able to change anything, because it has already happened, much like the movie 12 Monkeys. Other theories say that if something were changed it would create a new, separate time line, much like Back to the Future or Looper.

Another problem, Professor Miller explains, is the stability of the wormhole itself. If one creates a stable wormhole and a negative energy is used to create it, then at some point in the future a positive particle may float through, and collapse it. This would mean it would collapse both in the future AND the past. This would mean that the instant you would create a “stable” wormhole, it would collapse because sometime in the future that positive particle would float through and collapse it in the past/present.  (brain hurts).


3) The Alcubierre Drive (Warp Drive) might vaporize your friend

800px-Alcubierre-250x115A research team (led by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne at the University of University of Sydney) explain that because of the speeds involved, and the fact that space is not empty, once you reach your destination and slow down all those particles you've swept up in front and around your ship would continue at the speed you were going...and annihilate anything it hit. And, although one solution might be to simply point your approach away from the planet you're visiting, there's a possibility that those particles might explode in all directions.

I contacted Professor Alcubierre to see what he thought about this. Not only does he say that the theory is interesting, but he agrees with the findings. However, because space is three dimensional, Alcubierre thinks this may be a minor problem.

"The results are correct as far as I can see. The main problem I see is that the calculations are done in 1D space.  When you do this in 3D space I guess the problem will reduce considerable since particles will be defocused in the tangential directions.  It might be that you get a point where this happens straight ahead, but the problem might be much less severe. One would need to do the calculation, but it doesn't seem to hard to do, at least numerically.  It is essentially a ray tracing problem that includes the b-shift.

So, in summary, I wouldn't worry too much, I think the 3D nature of space will make this problem a minor one."


4) Warpships might blow up because of their speed the particles in space

speedlimitWilliam Edelstein (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore) says that because space is not empty and the speeds involved, the particles that you would unavoidably hit would cause your ship to explode. However, it's possible that metameterials might be the solution that might redirect photon particles around objects, and your spaceship to avoid building up these particles. Perhaps this same theory could be used as a solution as to not send those same particles into the planet you’re visiting (in the previous point up there).


5) Gravity will suck in things at the entrance and exit

worm3Remember Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? The entire show was based on a new, amazing, stable wormhole being discovered and being used to explore an entirely new “quadrant”, setup interstellar commerce...and also war with a new species. (great). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We haven’t explored much beyond our own solar system, so randomly finding a stable one is pretty unlikely. So, we’ll make a stable one ourselves.

Let’s pretend you’re a brilliant scientist and you finally figure out how to create a stable wormhole that travels from our solar system with a convenient entrance just outside of our Moon’s orbit, with an exit over to, say, our closest star, Alpha Centauri.  This is a momentous scientific breakthrough, the entire world has a huge party, everybody is happy. Right up until the Moon, space stations, space ships, satellites and Earth get barraged by particles moving faster than the speed of light...blowing shit up left and right and possibly killing people.

Wait, what?

Think about what you’ve just made.  If stable wormholes are anything like what Star Trek Deep Space Nine depicts, then both sides are entrances and exits. Meaning, it’s a two way street. What one end eats, the other poops out... like the Puke-Me-Puke-You from Futurama.

But unlike DS9, man-made wormholes probably won’t have a safety valve, they’ll most likely stay open all the time. This is great for interstellar travel and space ships...but also works with other particles, space dust, asteroids, and other crap in space. And let’s not forget all the crap WE put in space and into Earth’s orbit.

Instead of just a super fast highway, you’ve made an interstellar space gun, possibly inadvertently declaring war on those dudes from Alpha Centauri. Nice job asshole.


6) Did we find wormholes that take us to the sun?

664638main1 polar-xpoint-226In this article on Nasa’s website, a claim is made that wormholes have been found between the Earth’s atmosphere and the Sun’s. But I asked Professor Miller if these were really “wormholes”  

“Regarding magnetic portals, sorry but this isn't anything all that interesting.  The point is that the Earth's magnetic field deflects fast-moving particles from the Sun that have electric charge.  There are some paths along which the particles can get closer to the Earth than others, and the announcement here is just that in some cases they can get all the way to the Earth.  In addition, the Earth's field is dynamic, so these gaps open and close frequently.  It's not all that mysterious, and indeed we already know that charged particles can get to the Earth's magnetic poles easier than to other places (indeed, when those particles hit the atmosphere they produce aurorae).

So, nope, not wormholes :) “

(that’s right, a theoretical physics professor just used a smiley face)


7) Wormholes and Warp drives need a LOT of Energy

There are many theories for the possibilities of both wormholes and warp drives, but most of them use A LOT of energy to make them stable and work. One theory on Nasa’s website explains that, in order to build a wormhole you’d have to build a ring the size of Earth’s orbit, (Remember Ringworld, anyone?) then build another ring on the other end and then spin both at speeds approaching the speed of light. This theory would require an enormous amount of energy...and if you think about, if we had that much energy...there might be more issues...like perhaps blowing up the solar system you’re working in.

Professor Miguel Alcubierre famously proposed a warp drive theory that would give us the ability to travel to distant stars without breaking the laws of relativity by bending space, and therefore time, around the ship. However, his theory also requires a lot of what he calls “exotic energy”.

warp-drive-nasaThere is hope, however. One new theory presented by Harold White at a NASA event called the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium, says that we might not need as much energy as we once thought, but perhaps energy/mass equivalent as small as the Voyager 1 probe, instead of, say, the energy equivalent to the size of Jupiter by changing the shape of the warp bubble.

I wanted to know more about this. So I asked Professor Cole what he thought via email. He said he wasn’t sure, so he told me to contact Professor Alcubierre. So,...I did, and, surprisingly, he responded (these theoretical physicists are pretty cool).

"Certainly, changing the shape of the warp bubble will change the energy required.” Alcubierre says, “ But space time is VERY STIFF.  Any significant deviation from flat space requires planet sized energies.  Earth in fact only produces a 10^-9 effect.  The warp drive is a very serious deformation of spacetime, so even if the required exotic energy fields exist, I am pretty sure one would require huge amounts of energy."

"But what can I do?" You might ask. You could look for Dark Matter, which might be the solution for powering a warp drive or a wormhole in the future. And if you find some, you can win $20,000. But hurry, the contest ends Dec 16th, 2012.

After writing and publishing the 6 Realities of Teleportation Star Trek Didn't Warn Us About, I wanted to find out more about other shortcuts for space travel. I did some searching and finally found Professor Cole Miller, who does a lecture on the science behind some of the interesting issues concerning worm holes and something called the Alcubierre Drive. After several emails and a Skype conversation, he has helped me organize my thoughts on this topic and break it down so that I understand these better.
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