No, they haven’t invented warp drive!


The media is screwing things up again. With headlines about “warp drive”, they are not only getting the physics wrong, they are also misunderstanding Star Trek. Here is the most egregious example I have found so far:

Warp drives that let humans zip around other galaxies may no longer belong purely in the realm of science fiction. NASA is believed to have been quietly testing a revolutionary new method of space travel that could one day allow humans to travel at speeds faster than light.

It is important to note that neither the scientists involved nor NASA have even mentioned faster than light travel. They are looking at a new kind of technology, called electromagnetic (or EM) drive, which may be a breakthrough.

All conventional space drives work through taking something (whether rocket fuel, charged atoms, or even atomic particles), accelerating it, and having your ship be pushed in the opposite direction to the discharge. Classic Newtonian mechanics, but the problem is that to keep moving you need large supplies of propellant.


EM drive claims to offer (at this time) very small thrust without using any propellant at all, which is revolutionary. Frankly, I am skeptical, but even if the drive works, it does NOT allow you accelerate a spacecraft through the speed of light. That limit exists as a result of fundamental limitations of space time, and has nothing to do with the potential virtues of EM drive or any propellant-less technology. But I do know why the media is getting this wrong!

On the various Star Trek TV series, the ships have three ways of moving through space. They have ‘thrusters’ for high precision maneuvers over short distances (which are just rockets), and something called ‘impulse drive’, which accelerates plasma using magnets, and gets up to velocities like half of light speed. But in order to catch a speeding Romulan, they switch over to ‘warp drive.’


Warp drive has two interesting properties in the science fiction world. Most importantly, it creates a ‘warp bubble’ which changes the physics of space time, and allows the ships to go faster than the speed of light. Warp 1 is light speed, and Warp 2 is 8x light speed, while Warp 3 is 27x: the formula is v = w3c. Without that, all of this bopping around the galaxy would take centuries, and interstellar travel wouldn’t fit into hour long TV episodes! 🙂

The second property of the warp drive was that it used tiny amounts of matter and antimatter to power the warp bubble, but did NOT use traditional Newtonian mechanics. In that way, AND THAT WAY ONLY, the proposed EM drive is indeed kind of like a warp drive.

But none of this changes the current view that the speed of light is an absolute limit. EM drive may allow us to get closer to the speed of light, it may be faster or cheaper or more reliable. But nothing in it allows us to go over 299,792,458 metres per second.

Which is too bad: the universe would be a much more interesting place if going from star to star took hours instead of years. That’s why almost all science fiction books, movies and TV shows have to come up with some trick like warp drives to get around the light speed barrier. But just because faster than light drives are a necessity for interesting fiction doesn’t (yet) make them a scientific reality. Despite what the headlines say…


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