Changing the Future of Space Travel

For many, the pandemic presented an opportunity to take up hobbies and interests both old and new. For Space Physics alumnus Dr. Erik Lentz, it was the perfect time to pursue his dream research project.

Space Physics Student Erik Lentz
During his time abroad, Lentz was part of the Computational Cosmology research group at the University of Göttingen in Germany. (Photo: Erik Lentz)

Industry-Rocking Research

Lentz spent three years in Germany researching physics at the University of Göttingen’s Institute for Astrophysics. Amid the lockdowns in March 2020, he found himself with an abundance of time on his hands and consulted a list of topics that he wanted to research but never had the time. Determining if one could theoretically construct a faster-than-light warp drive without exotic matter was at the top.

“It seemed like as good a time as any to take on a ‘fun’ project like that – something that was quite a bit different from what I had been doing,” he said.

Conducting his research between March and June of last year, he made a monumental discovery – that faster-than-light travel without exotic matter, or substances with negative energy density, is feasible.

His recently published paper, “Breaking the warp barrier: hyper-fast solitons in Einstein–Maxwell-plasma theory,” focuses on using the intrinsic qualities of gravity as we understand it through general relativity to move a spacecraft – potentially with human beings inside – at speeds faster than light.

From YouTube videos to news articles and trending Reddit threads on this exciting and imaginative topic, the response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

Set on Space Physics

Raised in Klamath Falls, Oregon, in a household that heavily encouraged learning, Lentz was always drawn to the sciences.

He recalls visiting the Prescott Campus and talking to the then head of the Physics & Astronomy Department, Dr. Darrel Smith, about the brand-new Space Physics major. Upon learning that the university was the only one to offer a focus in Exotic Propulsion, Lentz was hooked.

“It was something that had been fascinating to me from reading and watching too much science fiction as a kid,” he said. “I gained an interest in seeing if any of these fantastic technologies that were really just plot devices in Star Trek could actually exist.”

Lentz started his Embry-Riddle journey as a double major in Aerospace Engineering and Space Physics before fully shifting his focus to the physics program at the end of his sophomore year. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Space Physics in 2009.

He credits much of his development as a scientist to faculty mentors like Dr. Quentin Bailey and former mathematics professor Dr. David Russell, who helped shape his perception of physics as a discipline as opposed to something found only in popularized science books, he said.

“I was daunted by all of these laws and equations I was reading about, created by people 100 or more years ago and thinking, ‘how could I produce something that significant?’” he said. “Over the course of those four years, it became much clearer and less intimidating to me.”

Driven to Discover

Having since returned from Germany, Lentz now works as a Modeling and Simulation Analyst for JDSAT Operations Research & Big Data Sciences in Virginia. While there is much more to be uncovered, he looks forward to seeing how much further the research project can go and how it will progress the field.

In March, he returned to his Embry-Riddle roots to deliver a virtual presentation on his findings through the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium’s Science Speaker Series.

“It’s a very imperfect path I’ve taken with lots of twists and turns, but that’s kind of the point,” Lentz said.