Warp Speed Fuel Costs


Warp speed ahead. © Victor Habbick Visions/Science Photo Library/Corbis

I recently wrote a Discovery Space piece titled "Is Warp Speed Possible?" and the fuel efficacy issues really fascinate me. How much energy would you need to outrun a beam of light on a jaunt across the galaxy?

First, let's refresh on warp speed travel. According to Einstein's theory of special relativity, light is the universal speed limit. Nothing travels through space faster, and approaching it causes time to slow down and mass to become infinite. In other words, cosmic fat days last FOREVER.

But hang on, there's a loophole. Astrophysicists like to point out that while nothing can travel through space faster than light, there are no speed restrictions on space itself. Heard of the inflationary period immediately following the big bang? That's an example of space itself moving at immense speeds.

So warp speed travel comes down to this: Instead of moving a spaceship through space, you move a bubble of space through space. Now if that bubble just HAPPENS to contain an interstellar warship, then oops! It looks like we've found a loophole in the light speed barrier.

Warp Drive Models

What kind of inconceivable engine could possibly shoot a bubble of space-time across the galaxy? Theoretical physicists such as Dr. Richard Obousy have their own models of how it might work, but the warp drive is far, far future technology at best. But what really interests me is how fuel estimations for warp speed travel have come down over the years.

It all comes down to plugging numbers into Einstein's E=mc² equation, where a given amount of mass releases energy multiplied by a colossal number:

8.98755179 × 1016 meters² per seconds²

That's the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second) squared.

Earlier theoretical models of warp speed travel required a mass input greater than all the mass in the entire universe. So you'd need a bunch of parallel universes to burn just to crank up your ship for a speedy journey across your own. That's pretty out-there tech.

(© Forrest J. Ackerman Collection/CORBIS)

Later theories scaled warp-drive fuel costs down to all the mass in an entire galaxy. So to pull this off, a hypothetical civilization would need complete mastery over all the energy in a galaxy, making it a Type III if not a Type IV technology on the Kardashev scale.

Richard Obousy pointed out that his most recent theoretical warp speed models merely require the kind of power output you'd get from converting the mass of Jupiter into pure energy. Granted, that's still some seriously far-fetched technology, but it at least puts things within the grasp of a Type II Kardashev civilization, one capable of exploiting the power in an entire solar system.

Thinking about that, I can't help but think of the planet cracker ships in "Dead Space" and Stephen Hawking's concerns about planet-harvesting aliens. Might warp speed travel at such costs become one cosmically destructive addiction?


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.