The U.S. Government Once Released a Study on Warp Drive

Conspiracy theorists like to say that the government is in contact with extraterrestrials, knows all about their advanced technology, and is just hiding it from the public. In fact, the U.S. government does have an official history of studying UFOs and attempting to develop the kind of technology mostly relegated to science fiction — and a lot of it has been declassified. The most recent document to surface? A 2010 study entitled "Warp Drive, Dark Energy, and the Manipulation of Extra Dimensions." Yes, the Department of Defense has been studying warp drive. But does that mean the technology is actually possible?

A Wrinkle in Spacetime

Ever since Albert Einstein rained on everyone's parade by proving that nothing can travel faster than light, futurists have been trying to come up with ways around the universe's cosmic speed limit. After all, even our closest stellar neighbor would take more than four years to reach if we could travel at the speed of light — to reach distant galaxies in a practical amount of time, we'll have to go faster.

Many of the most popular methods involve using Einstein's principles to our advantage: The dimensions of space and time are bound together into spacetime, which can curve and bend in the presence of certain physical forces. Just as you can gather the fabric of a dress to make the waistline smaller, it might be possible to "gather" the fabric of the universe to shorten the distance between two points. That could theoretically get us across the universe in a matter of days, rather than eons.

Wormholes are theoretical shortcuts through spacetime that might naturally occur, if we can find them; warp drive is one way we might wrinkle spacetime ourselves. It turns out that the military has been trying to figure out the latter.

Shedding Light on Dark Energy

The U.S. Department of Defense began the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program in 2007, according to the New York Times. This $22 million program was aimed at investigating reports of UFOs, which some were concerned could be next-generation technology developed by the Chinese or Russian government. It only makes sense, then, that program officials would study all the next-generation technology they could.

That's where the warp drive study comes in. Though it's dated April 2, 2010, the document was just recently released by the Defense Intelligence Agency and covered by Dave Mosher of Business Insider. Two physicists, Richard K. Obousy, Ph.D., now the director of spaceflight company Icarus Interstellar; and Eric W. Davis, Ph.D., an independent researcher; produced a 34-page report laying out just how we might manage to produce warp drive. As far-out as it might seem, the paper uses a variety of established physics to get to its end goal — but how applicable they are is definitely in question.

Their warp drive would work using dark energy, a form of energy that, while mysterious in nature, is believed to make up roughly 70 percent of the universe. It's what scientists believe is fueling the expansion of the universe, thanks to its ability to generate negative pressure (for an understanding of why negative pressure makes the universe expand, rather than contract, check out physicist Sean Carroll's excellent explainer). Although we have yet to explain what dark energy is or where it comes from, this pair of researchers figures it's thanks to a combination of energy from the vacuum of space in our own dimension, plus that of a higher dimension. Just go with it.

The amount of vacuum energy in that higher dimension is "intimately related" to its size, say the researchers. Therefore, all you need to do is create a technology that can change the size of that higher dimension, and then you could control dark energy. Since dark energy controls the expansion of the universe, control over dark energy would be control over spacetime itself. If you made the region of spacetime in front of a starship contract while you made the region behind it expand, you could make the ship effectively travel faster than the speed of light without ever actually doing so.

There's a lot more to it, of course. But as Sean Carroll tells Business Insider, "It's bits and pieces of theoretical physics dressed up as if it has something to do with potentially real-world applications, which it doesn't. This is not crackpot. This is not the Maharishi saying we're going to use spirit energy to fly off the ground — this is real physics. But this is not something that's going to connect with engineering anytime soon, probably anytime ever."

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For more on how the universe works, check out Sean Carroll's latest New York Times Bestseller, "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer June 11, 2018

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