NASA announced in 2012 that it was working to build a "warp drive" that could enable "faster-than-light" travel. Two years later and the space agency hasn't built a spaceship capable of such speeds yet — but thanks to artist Mark Rademaker, we now know what one could look like. The result is the IXS Enterprise, a ship that shares similarities with both its science fiction Star Trek namesake, and NASA's real-world space shuttle.
Rademaker worked together with NASA's Dr. Harold White to produce visual concepts for the craft. White and his team at NASA are hoping to make "faster-than-light" travel possible with Alcubierre drives. The drives, named for physicist Miguel Alcubierre, theoretically work by distorting space-time. By expanding the space behind a ship and contracting the space in front of it, the IXS Enterprise could drastically speed up our space travel potential, making the 4.3 light-year journey to Alpha Centauri in around two weeks.
Rademaker says he was influenced in the design for his Enterprise by Matt Jefferies' sci-fi artworks from the 1960s. But where famed aviation artist Jeffries, who helped create the spaceships of the Star Trek universe, imagined spindly craft with thin rings, the IXS Enterprise sits inside two circles chubby enough to power its Alcubierre drive. The spacecraft is fatter than most of Jefferies' sci-fi ships, too, capable of bearing four cylindrical pods on its flanks, and sporting a wide, flat, duck's bill of a command module. Speaking at the SpaceVision conference last year, Dr. White justified the design, saying that "if you're going to go to all the trouble of making it that big, you might as well fit all you can in there."
Until NASA announces a breakthrough in its research of Alcubierre drives and "faster-than-light" travel technology, Rademaker's concepts will remain only concepts. But his visualization of the IXS Enterprise still gives us a glimpse of the kinds of vehicles we'll hopefully one day be able to use to travel to strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and new civilizations.
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An Alcubierre drive is theoretically capable of warp speeds, but the travel time to our nearest neighbor is still two weeks. Any "faster-than-light" craft will need to be big enough to have room for staff and supplies to survive out beyond the edge of our solar system.
Rademaker's images imagine the ship during its construction. His design is shown to be modular, with space for four pods on the side of the ship that could house living quarters, supplies, or — in keeping with the ship's name — a holodeck.
The number of sponsors suggests NASA is expecting the commercial space travel sector to keep growing. Squint at the bottom right of the nameplate and you might see a familiar logo: Weyland-Yutani, the nefarious fictional megacorporation from the Alien movies.
The body of the IXS Enterprise is suspended inside two large rings, a design decision that means the craft can sit safely inside the warp bubble generated by its Alcubierre drive. A good thing, too: any appendages that jutted outside would be subjected to unimaginable effects as the ship distorted space-time.
The concept of a warp drive-enabled spaceship is still fanciful at this point in human development, but Rademaker's images blend elements of real-world tech with sci-fi suggestion. The Enterprise's side solar panels look like they've been borrowed from the International Space Station.