Now that gravitational wave astronomy is a viable means of investigating the cosmos, we’re capable of studying extreme events like the merger of black holes and even neutron stars. Anything that generates ripples in spacetime large enough to spot is fair game, and that would include supernovae events and individual neutron stars with surface irregularities. If we really want to push the envelope, we could conceivably detect the proposed defects in spacetime called cosmic strings, which may or may not have been formed in the early universe.

The latter is an intriguing thought, a conceivably observable one-dimensional relic of phase transitions from the beginning of the cosmos that would be on the order of the Planck length (about 10-35 meters) in width but lengthy enough to encompass light years. Oscillations in these strings, if indeed they exist, would theoretically generate gravitational waves that could be involved in the large-scale structure of the universe. Because new physics could well lurk in any detection, cosmic strings remain a tantalizing subject for speculation in gravitational wave astronomy.

Remember the resources that are coming into play in this field. In addition to LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), we have KAGRA (Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector) in Japan and Virgo (VIRgo interferometer for Gravitational-wave Observations) in Italy. The LISA observatory (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is currently scheduled for a launch some time in the 2030s.

For that matter, could a cosmic string be detected in other ways? One possibility is in any signature it might leave in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Another, and this seems promising, is the potential for gravitational lensing as light from background objects travels through the distorted spacetime produced by the string. That would be an interesting signature to find, and indeed, one of the exciting aspects of gravitational wave astronomy is speculation on what new phenomena it would allow us to detect.

As witness a new paper from Katy Clough (Queen Mary University, London) and colleagues, who ask whether an artificial gravitational event could generate a signal that an observatory like LIGO could detect. Now we nudge comfortably into science fiction, for at issue is what would happen if a starship powered by a warp drive were to experience a malfunction. Given the curvature of spacetime induced by an Alcubierre-style drive, a problem in its operations could be detectable, although not, the team points out, at the frequencies currently observed by LIGO.

An Alcubierre warp drive would produce a spacetime that is truly exotic, but one that can be described within the theory of General Relativity. The speed of light is never exceeded by our starship, thus satisfying Special Relativity, but a craft that can contract spacetime in front of it and expand spacetime behind it would theoretically cross distances faster than the speed of light as witnessed by an outside observer.

Huge problems would be created by such a craft, including some that may be insurmountable. It seems to violate what is known as the Null Energy Condition, for one thing, which demands negative energy seemingly not allowed in standard theories of spacetime. But the authors note that “The requirement that warp drives violate the NEC may be considered a practical rather than fundamental barrier to their construction since NEC violation can be achieved by quantum effects and effective descriptions of modifications to gravity, albeit subject to quantum inequality bounds and other semiclassical considerations that seem likely to prove problematic.”

Image: Two-dimensional visualization of an Alcubierre drive, showing the opposing regions of expanding and contracting spacetime that displace the central region. Credit: AllenMcC., CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Problematic is a useful word, and it seems appropriate here. It’s also appropriate when we consider that a functioning warp drive raises paradoxical issues with regard to time travel, allowing closed time-like curves (in other words, the possibility of traveling into the past, with all the headaches that causes for causality and our view of reality). That puts us in the realm of rotating black holes and wormholes, powerful gravitational wave generators. The authors also point out that a warp drive would be a difficult thing to control and deactivate, as Miguel Alcubierre himself pointed out in a 2017 paper.

So how would we detect a starship of this variety? The authors note that at constant velocity, an Alcubierre drive spacecraft would not generate gravitational waves, but interesting phenomena would be observed if the drive bubble were to collapse, accelerate or decelerate:

There is (to our knowledge) no known equation of state that would maintain the warp drive metric in a stable configuration over time – therefore, whilst one can require that initially, the warp bubble is constant, it will quickly evolve away from that state and, in most cases, the warp fluid and spacetime deformations will disperse or collapse into a central point….This instability, whilst undesirable for the warp ship’s occupants, gives rise to the possibility of generating gravitational waves.

In other words, a working warp drive craft may well be undetectable, but a prototype that fails could throw an observable signature. The paper homes in on the collapse of a warp drive bubble, which could be created by the breakdown of the containment field that the makers of the starship use to support it. So we have a potential gravitational wave signature for a technological catastrophe as an advanced civilization experiments with the distortion of spacetime for interstellar travel.

Such events are presumably rare. I’m reminded of Greg Benford’s story “Bow Shock,” in which as astronomer studying what he thinks is a runaway neutron star – “a faint finger in maps centered on the plane of the galaxy, just a dim scratch” – is in fact a technological object. Here’s a clip:

“What you wrote,” she said wonderingly. “It’s a…star ship?”

“Was. It got into trouble of some kind these last few days. That’s why the wake behind it – ” he tapped the Fantis’ image – “got longer. Then, hours later, it got turbulent, and—it exploded.”

She sipped her coffee. “This is…was…light years away?”

“Yes, and headed somewhere else. It was sending out a regular beamed transmission, one that swept around as the ship rotated, every 47 seconds.”

Her eyes widened. “You’re sure?”

“Let’s say it’s a working hypothesis.”

Great scenario for a science fiction story, and there are a number of papers on starship detection from other angles in the scientific literature. In Benford’s case, the starship is thought to be of the Bussard ramjet variety, definitely not moving through warp drive methods. All this reminds me that a survey of starship detection papers is overdue in these pages, and I’ll plan to get to that in coming weeks. But back to warp drives.

Let’s assume things occasionally go wrong at whatever level of technology we’re looking at. We’re witnessing SpaceX actively developing Starship, a craft that gets a little better, and sometimes a lot better, each time it is launched, but development is hard and there are errors along the way. Throw an error into an Alcubierre-style starship and gravitational effects should show up involving nasty tidal outcomes.

To investigate these, Clough and colleagues develop a structured framework to simulate warp bubble collapse and analyze the gravitational wave signatures that would be produced at the point of collapse. Other types of signal may also be produced, but the paper notes: “Since we do not know the type of matter used to construct the warp ship, we do not know whether it would interact (apart from gravitationally) with normal matter as it propagates through the Universe.”

We don’t have equipment tuned to pick up such signals. We have the needed sensitivity in observatories like LIGO, but we would need to tune it to a different range of gravitational waves. The paper continues:

…for a 1km-sized ship, the frequency of the signal is much higher than the range probed by existing detectors, and so current observations cannot constrain the occurrence of such events. However, the amplitude of the strain signal would be significant for any such event within our galaxy and even beyond, and so within the reach of future detectors targeting higher frequencies… We caution that the waveforms obtained are likely to be highly specific to the model employed, which has several known theoretical problems, as discussed in the Introduction. Further work would be required to understand how generic the signatures are, and properly characterise their detectability.

A funding request to study starships undergoing catastrophic failure is going to be a tough sell. But probing the question produces the formalism developed by the Clough team and gives us further insights into warp drive prospects. Fascinating.

The paper is Clough et al, “What no one has seen before: gravitational waveforms from warp drive collapse” (preprint).