Created By: StarSword on July 9, 2013 Last Edited By: StarSword on July 26, 2013
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Alcubierre Drive

FTL travel by contracting space ahead of the ship and expanding it behind.

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Meant as a hybrid Useful Notes and trope page with a layman's terms explanation of the drive, followed by fictional uses. I did check, and if we have this it doesn't go by that name.

I know the quote refers to something else, but it just seemed so apropos.

Rolling Updates

What an Alcubierre drive does to the fabric of spacetime.
"Well, would you look at that? It never occurred to me to think of space as the thing that was moving."
-- Lt. Cdr. Montgomery Scott, Star Trek

Faster-Than-Light Travel has long been a staple of science fiction since it allows you to travel to other solar systems and back inside of a human lifetime. In real life, of course, according to basic Einsteinian physics particles with mass can never reach the speed of light, never mind going over it.

In 1994, however, Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre came up with a solution that is technically possible, albeit still out of reach of current technology. Instead of trying to accelerate the object past the speed of light, you move space itself around the object. The ship creates a bubble of spacetime of sorts, compressing space ahead of it and expanding behind it. Since the ship is not moving faster than light relative to the bubble, relativity is not violated.

The tricky part is, mathematically this requires a negative energy density, which in turn requires the generation of lots and lots of exotic matter with negative mass: a warp bubble (yes, Alcubierre used this term) large enough for a ship 200 meters across would require ten billion times the mass of the observable universe (though contracting the bubble's perimeter and expanding the volume inside it potentially reduces this to less than three solar masses). There's also various other interesting results, ranging from a possible Hyperspace Lanes implementation to the fact that when a ship decelerates from FTL, the energy release would fry anything ahead of it.

Fiction authors, of course, don't have to face the problem of actually building a practical Alcubierre drive, and since it was proposed it has become popular in harder sci-fi as a method of achieving Faster-Than-Light Travel without violating physics as they are currently understood.

And for the record, it's pronounced "al-cu-BYER-re".

A form of Reactionless Drive and a subtrope of Faster-Than-Light Travel.

Fictional uses of the Alcubierre drive:

[[foldercontrol]]

[[folder:Comic Books]]
  • Warren Ellis' Orbiter all but directly states that the shuttle has one of these. The name is not stated, but the description and picture of the warp field matches and Prof. Alcubierre's name is mentioned.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Literature]]
  • Used in both FTL and STL forms in the Star Carrier series. To go to FTL, most ships have to accelerate to near-c, whereupon they can use their relativistic mass to create an Alcubierre effect capable of traveling about a light-year and a half per day (that's in human ships; some aliens are faster). At slower-than-light speeds the drive works the same way to accelerate capital ships to fast enough speeds to cross star systems in a reasonable amount of time. Fighters are small enough to use a singularity drive instead (generate a high-gravity field in the direction of travel and blink it on and off really fast to pull the ship), allowing much higher delta-v.
  • Used in Stephen Baxter's novel Ark. The ship, Ark 1, is actually composed of two hulls connected with a tether, rotating around each other to generate gravity. Interestingly, due to how the ship's drive works, every jump is a Blind Jump: the destination is calculated beforehand, but once the ship enters warp, there's no way to drop out of it or even see what's happening at the destination prior to arriving.
  • Charles Stross' Eschaton series has the Alcubierre drive as one of about six methods of FTL travel or communication currently in use. It's mentioned to be extremely dangerous and difficult to use.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Live-Action TV]]
  • Star Trek's warp drive is a form of Alcubierre Drive, at least according to some of the technical manuals, and was the inspiration for Prof. Alcubierre's theory. The ship is surrounded by a series of fields that distort space around the ship.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Video Games]] [[/folder]]

[[folder:Web Original]]
  • Orion's Arm has these used on ships built by Archailects, though they can't exceed the speed of light and all but the most advanced put the ship outside the warp bubble, as it takes Sixth Singularity technology to dissolve a warp bubble without annihilating everything inside.
  • FutureTimeline.net predicts that humans will have one by 1,000,000 A.D.
[[/folder]]

Faster Than Light Index, The Newest Ones in the Book, Spacecraft

Community Feedback Replies: 34
  • July 9, 2013
    StarSword
    Thoughts on the writeup?
  • July 9, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Faaaaar too much emphasis on the Real Life aspects.
  • July 9, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Ok, I truncated the bulleted section to one sentence and got rid of some Word Cruft. Maybe we make a companion Useful Notes or Analysis page for the real live bits.
  • July 9, 2013
    UltramarineAlizarin
    Although not mentioned by name, the Planet Express Ship in Futurama can attain FTL speed because its dark matter engines move the universe instead of the ship itself, which Cubert Farnsworth realizes in the climax of the episode "A Clone of My Own".
  • July 9, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    OK, no. If that isn't an Alcubierre Drive, it shouldn't be here.
  • July 9, 2013
    StarSword
    Figures that Futurama would've something similar. They really love their troperifficness, don't they?

    EDIT: Although Septimus is right, that doesn't really count, unfortunately.

    EDIT 2: On third thought, that seems like possibly a parody.
  • July 10, 2013
    StarSword
    Come on, I'm almost certain Star Carrier isn't the only work to ever use an Alcubierre drive. Doesn't Mass Effect use something like it for shipboard FTL drives?
  • July 10, 2013
    zarpaulus
    • Orions Arm has these used on ships built by Archailects, though they can't exceed the speed of light and all but the most advanced put the ship outside the warp bubble, as it takes Sixth Singularity technology to dissolve a warp bubble without annihilating everything inside.
  • July 11, 2013
    aurora369
    We also should include at least references to the newest theories and projects to improve the Alcubierre Drive. Such as Cleaver and Obousy's assessment of the necessary mass as merely "one Jupiter", or Harold White's improvement which, if everything is right, decreases it to teeny weeny hundreds of kilograms (and eliminates the energy blast on deceleration problem, too).
  • July 11, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    That goes into Analysis/.
  • July 11, 2013
    Shnakepup
    • Used in Stephen Baxter's novel Ark. The ship, Ark 1, is actually composed of two hulls connected with a tether, rotating around each other to generate gravity. Interestingly, due to how the ship's drive work, every jump is a Blind Jump; the destination is calculated beforehand, but once the ship enters warp, there's no way to drop out of it or even see what's happening at the destination prior to arriving.
  • July 11, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Kicked into the namespace and added.
  • July 11, 2013
    zarpaulus
    By the way, I noticed that the page image for Reactionless Drive is one of the Alcubierre drive types from Orion's Arm, Halo Drive.
  • July 11, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Frankly, that needs to be sent to Image Pickin. There's no way to tell that's not just an oddly shaped starship.
  • July 11, 2013
    FrodoGoofballCoTV
    Live Action Television:
    • Although never really explained, Star Trek's warp drive is also a form of Alcubierre Drive. The ship is surrounded by a series of fields that distort space around the ship.
  • July 12, 2013
    zarpaulus
    • I'm pretty certain the in-system drives in EVE Online work on this principle.
    • The Tarka in Sword Of The Stars use Alcubierre drives, they're the slowest but least restricted form of FTL in the game (humans and Zuul use Hyperspace Lanes, Hivers a Portal Network, and Liir and Morrigi speed is variable).
  • July 12, 2013
    StarSword
    I'll add SotS now and wait for a check on EVE.
  • July 12, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    Would the references to the Navigators "folding space" in Dune fit under this? Admittedly, I haven't read the books recently, but it sounds close to me.
  • July 12, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ No that's wormholes.
  • July 12, 2013
    StarSword
    Dug through the Dune wiki and found this. When people talk about folding space, they mean physically moving spacetime at point A and point B until they're close enough to touch. Usually acts as an instantaneous jumpdrive, not a "takes time to get there"-drive.
  • July 12, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ So basically a wormhole
  • July 12, 2013
    fulltimeD
    I don't think this is necessary. The thematic/fictional aspects which are of interest to this wiki are covered under Faster Than Light Travel and I believe Miguel Alcubierre and the Alcubierre Warp Metric theory are mentioned on that page.

    I personally use these types of drives (along with various safety systems) in my stories but I see no need for a specific entry on the Alcubierre Drive on THIS wiki. It's more suited for wikipedia.

    Something like "It's Space That's Moving" might be a good YKTTW candidate which could include the Alcubierre Drive
  • July 12, 2013
    StarSword
    ^^More or less, except wormholes are frequently a naturally occurring phenomenon, whereas I can't think of any cases of folding space being natural.
  • July 12, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ Actually every example of wormholes (by scientifically literate authors) involves folded space. Einstein and Rosen's theory used the analogy of four-dimensional space-time simplified into a two-dimensional sheet that was folded over in places with holes poking through the folds. Of course space as we perceive it has four dimensions so the folds must be in the fifth or other dimensions we cannot perceive.

    By the way I found an explanation of warp drive in EVE, tell me if you think it counts.
  • July 12, 2013
    StarSword
    I'm ... honestly not sure. The description reminds me more of impeller wedges in the Honorverse than an Alcubierre drive, but then they go and wrap the wedges around the whole ship. I'll have to think about that one.
  • July 14, 2013
    StarSword
    Did some example mining from Faster Than Light Travel.
  • July 15, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    In re Dune Navigators, I had the impression that they were doing something to "fold" space (and needed the spice to be able to do it), rather than using naturally-occurring wormholes. That's why I brought it up in this context.
  • July 15, 2013
    StarSword
    ^IIRC the way it works is they're actually creating artificial wormholes. The spice gives them the precognition necessary to do it without wrecking the ship.

    @Zarpaulus: It's a question of how the terms are used: actively folding space versus using an existing fold. "Wormholes" can be either; "folding space" is usually the former.
  • July 21, 2013
    Melkior
    ^^ & ^ More simply described, they're supposed to be folding two points in space, in a dimension beyond the three we know, so that the two points touch and the spaceship doesn't even need to move in order to travel to another point in space. So, not an Alcubierre Drive.
  • July 26, 2013
    StarSword
    Examples? Hats?
  • July 26, 2013
    zarpaulus
  • July 26, 2013
    StarSword
    Ok, found the article you got it from for the image source, but I wonder if we can find another article it appears in that's in English.

    EDIT: Found the original source.
  • July 26, 2013
    StarSword
    Ok, I'm doing macroeconomics homework ATM so I won't be launching right away.
  • July 26, 2013
    StarSword
    Launching at 4:30 EST. Last call.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=iid2facc54hdiag2sp0krkch&trope=AlcubierreDrive