On September 8, 1966, the first episode in a television series that would come to revolutionize television aired: simply called ‘Star Trek’, this science-fiction show would change the way stories were told, the way we would view the world, and influence our concept of technology. One of the radical departures that Star Trek made was it’s use of "warp drive" as their starship’s method of propulsion: where previous series would simply use old-fashioned rockets, the U.S.S. Enterprise would warp the very fabric of spacetime itself, enabling faster-than-light travel, and simultaneously negating the unwanted time-dilatation and mass increase as predicted by the Theory of Relativity.
Thirty years later, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre applied a real-world mathematical model to the concept of warp travel, expressing the idea of contracting spacetime in front of a spacecraft, and expanding it behind it, creating a warp bubble that would have much the same effect of Star Trek’s warp drive. The concept remained academic, however: Alcubierre’s calculations require the generation of "negative mass" for the idea to work, an effect that could only be generated by some sort of otherwise unknown exotic matter. And it would need a large amount of it: initial calculations showed that more energy than would be available in the entire known universe would be required.
Later, in 2012, a research team led by physicist Harold White proposed new experiments that they would conduct, aimed at seeing if warping space-time was feasible without the need for some sort of exotic matter, or the massive amounts of energy that previous calculations called for. In White’s presentation at the Spacevision 2013 conference, he outlined their idea that only required an estimated 500kg of mass to run, and using material readily available to researchers today. The test device consists of a small ring-shaped barium titanate ceramic capacitor that has been charged with 20,000 volts of electricity, and an interferometer rig set up to detect minute disturbances that might be caused by the warping of space-time by the device.
Needing a way to allow the public to visualize the concept, and to get their imaginations going, White turned to Star Trek artist Mark Rademaker to illustrate what a fully-realized Alcubierre drive-powered spacecraft might look like. Building on an original concept drawing made by the designer of the original U.S.S. Enterprise, Matt Jefferies, and making adjustments to the design based on input from White, Rademaker created a computer model dubbed ‘IXS Enterprise’, in honor of Star Trek’s famous starship.
These concept renderings come with a caveat: it’s quite likely that the ship that results from this research, if one comes about at all, will not look like this. “We wanted to have a decent image of a theory conforming Warp ship to motivate young people to pursue a STEM career,” Rademaker explains. “It does have some Sci-Fi features that might never transfer to a possible final design, unless we really want to.”