When humans look up to the stars and consider exploring the natural world beyond our own planet, we have to temper our expectations. Due to the nature of the world around us, we can’t move at the speeds we’d need to in order to see a god stretch of even our own galaxy in a single lifetime.
Space is just so unfathomably big, and nothing can move faster than the speed of light. That upper speed limit automatically limits how far any human being could ever travel, even with infinite fuel and a ship capable of hitting lightspeed.
Science fiction tales fix this by introducing some way to break through the upper limit, allowing ships to travel faster than light. However, such a thing might even be possible for astronauts in the real-world using a device called an Alcubierre drive.
The Alcubierre Drive was first proposed by Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre. It is a hypothetical space engine that would warp space around the ship. Rather than trying to propel an object up above the speed of light, the Alcubierre warp drive would literally warp space around the ship, shortening the distances from their starting point to their destination.
Such a thing could be possible under one reading of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The engine would require a configurable energy-density field lower than that of vacuum. That is to say, it would require the discovery of materials with negative mass. Such a material would, by necessity, be composed of what physicists call “exotic matter,” a theoretical type of matter that could exist in space.
Alcubierre himself argues that exotic matter might not even be required: it’s possible that the Casimir effect, a vacuum that can occur between parallel plates, could have sufficient properties to act as something of a negative mass.
The term “warp drive” and the concept of an engine that warps space actually predates Alcubierre’s research. John W Campbell’s 1931 book “Islands of Space” introduces the idea of warp drives and first uses that name. The idea was also used in the Star Trek series, which started in the late 1960s. Alcubierre has stated that he was, indeed, inspired by Star Trek when he was theorizing about moving faster than the speed of light.
This is far from the first time Star Trek influenced real-world science, too. Devices from the cell phone to the smart watch were largely helped into existence by the idea being given shape by the influential TV show.