NASA funds 'warp speed' research

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Images of the Saturnian system taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft during its Saturn encounter in November 1980. (Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Though it seems ripped straight from an episode of Star Trek, NASA has invested real money into understanding the science behind travel faster than the speed of light.

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Harold G. White, a NASA physicist, leads the small team at NASA who are trying to make reality out of a theory that suggests the possibility of traveling faster than the speed of light. 

While experts remain divided on the feasibility of warp speed travel, White and his team are focused on making small demonstrations of the principle that could be expanded with further research.

In an interview with the New York Times, White compared his project to the U.S. government's Manhattan Project, which produced the first atom bombs in the mid-1940s, in the way it took a small concept and eventually applied it in a practical setting.

"We're not trying to work on technology at this point, this is just science trying to make sure we understand the math and physics," he said.

So far, NASA has invested about $50,000 in equipment for White's research, just a fraction of its $18 billion in annual expenditures. 

White's work is an expansion of a 1994 theory by Miguel Alcubierre, which said that if one were able to harness the expansion and contraction of space, it would be possible to travel faster than the speed of light.

For now, the speed of light is space travel's limiting factor.

"It's almost like when you rent a cargo van, sometimes they come with a built in governor, so when you try and go past a certain point the engine will just not let you go any faster," White said. "The Voyager I is kind of our state-of-the art interstellar probe and it was launched back in '77, but it would still take 75,000 years to get to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri."

Should White's research lead to a practical warp speed device, spaceships could cover that distance in months or weeks.

"I guess the question would be one day, far in the future, could you engage this concept to make travel in solar system more routine?" White said.