Free software lets you design and test warp drives with real physics. Warp drives are among the more plausible of science fiction concepts, at least from a mathematical perspective. Now, Applied Physics, a multidisciplinary group of international scientists and engineers, has launched Warp Factory, open-source software that anyone can use to design a functional warp drive.

“Physicists can now generate and refine an array of warp drive designs with just a few clicks, allowing us to advance science at warp speed,” said Gianni Martire, CEO of Applied Physics. “Warp Factor serves as a virtual wind tunnel, enabling us to test and evaluate different warp designs. Science fiction is now inching closer to science fact.”

A lot of people would be familiar with warp drives, at least as a concept. Fans of the Star Trek universe and other, lesser sci-fi franchises, have come to accept the idea of space travel at faster-than-light speeds – it speeds up storytelling, for one thing, and means characters can cross galaxies without aging thousands of years.

But many would be surprised to know that warp drives actually have some basis in science. In sci-fi literature, superluminal – another way of saying faster-than-light – travel (FLT) is achieved by warping or deforming spacetime around an object (e.g., a spacecraft), hence the term ‘warp drive’. But what is spacetime?

In physics, spacetime is a conceptual model that fuses the three dimensions of space (a set of x, y, and z coordinates; a physical location) with a fourth dimension: time (t). Thinking of the universe as a single continuum where space and time are interwoven means that time, considered an independent entity according to classical physics, is actually affected when an object moves through space. Albert Einstein helped develop the idea of spacetime as part of his theory of relativity, which is, in fact, two related theories. Einstein’s special theory of relativity explains the relationship between space, time, mass, and energy and states that energy (E) equals mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared. E = mc2. That is, energy and mass are different, interchangeable versions of the same thing, but the speed of light is a constant – it’s the same everywhere in the universe.

The famous theory states that the faster an object is in motion, the greater its observed mass is. When the speed of light is almost reached, its observed mass becomes infinite, and consequently, a limitless amount of energy is necessary to transport it. Hence, as per special relativity, nothing can ever go faster than the speed of light.

The special theory of relativity deals with objects that are not accelerating, i.e., those in inertial reference frames, but it does not account for gravity. The general theory of relativity addresses this issue.

The principle of general relativity declares that gravity is the warping effect that masses cause on space and time. In other words, the greater a mass, the more it deforms spacetime. These curvatures constrict or restrict how everything in the cosmos moves as all objects are forced to follow paths on this warped curvature.

This is where the iconic picture of a bowling ball (which stands for a large object) being positioned on top of a stretched rubber sheet (which stands for spacetime) originates. A stone will move toward and possibly even “orbit” the bowling ball if it is placed on the sheet. This happens because the smaller mass is moving along a surface that has been distorted by the presence of the bigger mass, not because the larger mass emits a force that attracts the smaller mass.

Warp drives are solutions to Einstein’s field equations, which form the core of his general theory of relativity and can calculate how a particular distribution of matter and energy deforms spacetime. The equations are too complicated to tackle here, but for a simplified explanation, check out the video below by theoretical physicist and science philosopher Sabine Hossenfelder. She discusses general relativity at the 3:54 mark and goes on to discuss the research that appears in the next section. Einstein’s theory taught us that space can be deformed with energy. A bubble of energy surrounding an object, such as a spacecraft, contracts the space in front of it and expands the space behind it. The deformation causes desired locations to move closer to the object, meaning it can travel without moving. But the big question in all of this is: What type of energy is the bubble made of?

In 1994, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed that a spacecraft could travel faster than the speed of light by utilizing this contraction-expansion mechanism. Essentially, the ship would remain encapsulated in an energy bubble, and its crew would not sense the interstellar journey.

Unfortunately, Alcubierre’s mathematical equations didn’t explain how his proposed warp drive allowed travel beyond the speed of light. Further, it required large amounts of ‘negative energy’ – something that doesn’t exist. The Alcubierre Drive was widely considered unachievable.

After Alcubierre, the ‘reality’ of warp drives took a big hit. The concept didn’t really recover until 2020 when the next big paper came out: Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire’s Introducing Physical Warp Drives.

In the paper, Bobrick, a theoretical astrophysicist, and Martire, a self-taught physicist and tech entrepreneur, developed the first-ever model for physical warp drives that avoids the issues with Alcubierre’s model. Importantly, the researchers’ model was concerned with subluminal travel, that is, travel slower than the speed of light.

The researchers, from Applied Physics, describe warp drives as “inertially moving shells of positive or negative energy material which enclose a ‘passenger’ region within a flat metric.” The more massive a spherical shell becomes, the more influence it has on the spacetime inside it – significant mass produces a significant effect. In the video below, Bobrick and Martire discuss their research in more detail. The Bobrick-Martire model reduced energy requirements by a factor of 30 and proved that warp drives could function without theoretical fuels such as negative energy, ostensibly confirming that warp drives are physically possible. While the research didn’t explain how an object could be accelerated to superluminal speeds, it provided a solid mathematical basis for studying warp drives.

After watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as a kid, physicist Erik Lentz was motivated to make warp drives a reality. Coupled with the recently published Bobrick and Martire paper, Lentz’s 2021 paper caused a worldwide media frenzy, reigniting the idea of superluminal travel in the public consciousness. Using Einstein’s field equations, Lentz stitched together unexplored configurations of warp bubbles – he called them ‘solitons’ – arriving at an arrangement that could achieve FTL travel using only positive energy from conventional energy sources.

In a press release accompanying the study, Lentz postulated that, provided sufficient energy could be generated, the equations he used would allow space travel from Earth to Proxima Centauri, the closest known star to the Sun, and back “in years instead of decades or millennia”. However, energy remained a barrier to realizing a real-life, physical warp drive, and Lentz didn’t explain how his positive-energy model avoided negative energies.