Einstein’s theory of general relativity puts a speed limit on all matter in the universe, creating a barrier preventing acceleration from below to above the speed of light.

However, an independent group of scientists, inventors, and engineers called Applied Physics recently proposed the first model for a physical warp drive, according to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

While this could make warp drive more than science fiction, it’s best to take the new study with a grain of salt — because even if warp drive is now mathematically possible, there’s no telling how long it could be until humans could use it to substantially shorten the time of travel between stars — the closest of which would take roughly four years to reach, at light-speed.

Warp drive is no longer science fiction

Applied Physics has announced the first model of physical warp drive, after working in close contact with esteemed researchers in warp field mechanics — with endorsements from the renowned Theoretical Physicist Miguel Alcubierre, whose warp drive engine model served as the basis of this research.

“Many people in the field of science are aware of the Alcubierre Drive and believe that warp drives are unphysical because of the need for negative energy,” said Alexey Bobrick, scientist and astrophysicist at Lund University, according to a press release. “This, however, is no longer correct.”

“[W]e went in a different direction than NASA and others and our research has shown there are actually several other classes of warp drives in general relativity,” said Bobrick. “In particular, we have formulated new classes of warp drive solutions that do not require negative energy and, thus, become physical.”

A lot of physicists, engineers, and scientists were inspired by the promise of technology depicted in sci-fi literature and films. Not only warp speed, but site-to-site teleportation, wormholes, time travel, and more fictional ideas about what natural science might one day make possible are a testament to the human capacity to imagine a more advanced future.

Alcubierre’s warp engine theory

The sad part for most professional scientists and engineers is learning that these technologies aren’t real. However, warp drives are among the most realistic ideas science fiction shows like “Star Trek” have brought to the table.

In science fiction literature, shows, and films, warp drive is an alternative kind of propulsion to conventional rockets of today that allows spacecraft to travel faster than the speed of light, or superluminally — by warping and deforming the fabric of space-time around the vessel.

This idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds; after all, mass does the same thing, and when enough mass is collected in one place, we call it a gravity well. So if we could “bend” or deform the fabric of space-time in the right way — contracting it in front of a vessel while expanding space-time behind it — we might move faster than the speed of light.

This is the basis of Alcubierre’s warp engine theory. But sadly, it calls for large amounts of negative energy — which doesn’t exist. And even if it did, it wouldn’t explain how a body could break the light-speed barrier.

Warp drive must avoid time dilation

Einstein’s theory of general relativity holds that an object cannot accelerate from below to above the speed of light, because the acceleration would take an infinite amount of energy. But there’s a loophole, since Einstein’s speed limit only applies to objects in space-time, not to the fabric of space-time itself — which can bend, expand, or contract at any speed.

The term “warp drive” implies the bending of the fabric of space-time, and doesn’t require the vessel inside the teardrop-shaped space-time bubble to exceed the speed of light to work. Crucial to a warp drive vessel going faster than light is to make sure the passengers don’t themselves move faster than light — since this would create a difference in the passage of time called time dilation, where passengers experience “normal time-flow” while the rest of the universe seems to accelerate into the future.

Flatter warp drive bubbles take less energy than long ones

To avoid this paradox, instead of moving the vessel and passengers superluminally, the study suggests moving only the warp bubble itself at faster-than-light speeds, since space-time itself can expand or contract at any speed. While an exciting theoretical find, the paper authors admit that we still don’t know how to actually do this.

However, this does give us a much stronger mathematical basis to study warp drives. The next step is to discover how much energy is needed to achieve the desired acceleration. Critically, the study authors show the Alcubierre drive will take substantially less energy if the travelers are seated next to one another, rather than in a straight line — like a penny flying face-first, instead of a gliding frisbee.

The flatter the shape of the bubble in the direction of travel, the less energy you need, according to a breakdown of the paper shared on YouTube by Professor and Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies Sabine Hossenfelder. While we may not be ready to build a warp speed-capable spaceship and fly to Mars in minutes, with more research this new perspective on a leading idea about faster-than-light travel could bring us closer to the sci-fi future with which many of us grew up.