One of the most fascinating and amusing inventions in science fiction is the concept of faster-than-light travel, or hyperspeed. It is fascinating in its concept, but like most things depicted in science fiction, it is not completely thought out by the earthbound writers who work with it. Just for giggles, let’s take a look at hyperspeed travel from a realistic point of view, allowing of course, for the problems posed by relativity and physical science, which suggest that it is a problem that cannot be solved by any method yet possible within our knowledge.
Let’s assume, for the purpose of discussion, that these issues will be overcome in the future. Personally, I think they probably will be, but don’t ask me how. I don’t know, and neither does anyone else at present. Science fiction writers have offered a number of ideas, but none of them are very likely to work.
Let’s begin with a tip of the hat to the Great Granddaddy of Space Opera, E.E. “Doc” Smith. His Inertialess Hyperdrive was the beginning of it all. A physicist who began his writing in the 1930s, he wrote about the ether, which physicists proved doesn’t exist, and super-explosives before the atom bomb. Although his hyperdrive hasn’t wound up in other science fiction literature, his menagerie of aliens and plots became the groundwork for everything that followed. His aliens are still some of the coolest.
In Star Trek, the system is Cochran Timewarp. This is probably one of the wildest ideas ever suggested, that space can be “warped” by a matter-anti matter field. You don’t actually travel at interstellar speeds, you merely compress the space-time continuum from point A to point B. Clever, but not very practicable. What effect would such a process have on Space? Based on what we now already know, probably pretty bad. I don’t think I would want my planet to go through the distorted track that such a process would create. Warp tracks would be major menace to everything around them. But this is all theory. I have a story where a ship hits a warp track and gets thrown 100 centuries into the future. So, I am grateful for the concept.
The worst idea is the Wormhole notion of deep space travel. Wormholes, if they exist, are not something a ship or people could enter and hope to survive, the heat and radiation emissions alone would render them off-limits. If you find a wormhole, stay out, if it didn’t incinerate you instantly, the pressure would reduce an Enterprise-sized starship to a tiny molecule in an instant.
Personally, I prefer magnetic multiphasic hyperdrive, which skews the mass of a space ship to the continuum, avoiding the restrictions of common relativity and space. The ship in Forbidden Planet used this principle. But this, too, is only science fiction. The real method will only be found when we understand enough about our universe to actually develop something none of us can even talk about now. Perhaps the answer lies in quantum physics, which is probably the most likely place in science we know of that could yield a solution. But in order to do so, it would make us redefine almost everything we understand about physics.
Again, let’s assume we can solve the problem and achieve post light speed velocities. What would that actually be like? First of all, it would be nothing like we have seen in the movies or in print. What if we could travel at one thousand times the speed of light? In terms even of travel in our own galaxy, we would be crawling along. The closest star, Alpha Centauri would take over a year to reach. We would need to move at millions of times the speed of light just to get around to our local galactic destinations for it to be practical at all.
One of the things that make me want to laugh out loud whenever I see it, is a starship in a movie that is streaking away at light speed. Usually the Enterprise moves by us at about thirty miles an hour with a whoosh. The Millennium Falcon streaks away at about seventy miles per hour. There’s a reason for this. You could not see a starship traveling at light speeds at all.
Imagine yourself at a fixed point in space with a starship approaching at the speed of light. One second before it passes you, it is 186,000 miles away. One second after it passes you, it is the same distance away. You might sense something big going by, but could you see it? Probably not. In truth, even our modern spacecraft creeping along a 17,000 mph would be moving so fast you would only see a blur. If you blinked you’d miss it. A starship traveling at warp speeds would be completely invisible.
Why would Romulans waste power cloaking such a ship in interstellar space, which, by the way, is incredibly dark? There are some bright places in interstellar space, but they’re places you would avoid going to anyway, more about that later. Interstellar space is, for the most part, very, very dark. The Voyager Spacecraft, which has left the Solar System, is enshrouded in almost total darkness.
The only reason you can see modern orbital spacecraft in video is because the camera shooting them is moving just as fast.
Another strange depiction in deep space movies is the stars moving by.
Nope. It looks cool, but you would never see it, even at light speeds. The universe is vast, only close objects would appear to be moving, and there aren’t any close objects in interstellar space. They’re not just far away, they are light years away. It would take time-lapse photography to see the stars move out of the window of a starship.
What other oddities would we experience at hyperspeeds? Well for one, you would never be able to approach a solar system at light speeds. Let’s assume for the moment that other solar systems formed like ours did. The first thing you would encounter is a vast blister of ice particles and planetoids. In our solar system, it is called the Oort Cloud; millions of miles of icy debris surrounding the system from all sides. Only a suicidal maniac would attempt to enter it at light speeds. He simply could not avoid certain destruction.
Inside the solar system would be no safer for hyperspeeds. A solar system contains vast amounts of loose debris in the form of comets, dust, asteroids and planetary leftovers, impossible to navigate at such speeds.
It’s worth pointing out that the scene in The Empire Strikes Back, in which C3PO predicts the chances of navigating an asteroid field are almost impossible, is silly. The images of colliding asteroids look like fun on the screen, but the reality is very different. Space is vast. Asteroid fields are big, so big that anybody could navigate through them with ease even at thousands of miles per hour. Our planetary probes do it all the time. The asteroids in our solar system are millions or thousands of miles apart, even the closest encounters usually are never more than a few hundred miles.
In other words, any starship would take hours to approach the planets of any solar system it entered for the sake of safety. Remember the warp test above the Earth in Star Trek: First Contact? When you consider the tons of space rocks that pummel our upper atmosphere every day, what would have happened to Dr. Cochran and Jordi? Right you are, they would probably have been killed instantly.
The same is true for interstellar dust and gas. These would have to be carefully avoided by any hyperspace traveler. Imagine hitting a dust cloud two hundred light years across at one million times light speed. Even a low density dust cloud is matter; it would be like trying to go through a solid planet thousands, or even tens of thousands of miles across. Not recommended.
The same is true for gas. We all remember what happened to the Space Shuttle Columbia when its heat shield failed; it burned up in the upper atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour. Any attempt to navigate such a cloud at light speeds would certainly incinerate a ship that tried it.
A space craft traveling at light speeds would need to have a powerful sensor array scanning the path in front of it for vast distances. Deep space hazard reports would be even more necessary than ice or weather reports are for ships at sea. There would be a lot less reaction time for hyperspeeds. A marble sized rock would pulverize an aircraft carrier-sized starship at those velocities. They would never even know what hit them.
The same is true for nebulas, pulsars, novae, or even red and white giants. These bodies create huge debris and gas fields which would be too hazardous for a ship to approach at hyperspeeds. Observations would have to be made from light years away, but with the deep scanning abilities required for hyperspeed travel, that would be close enough to tell the space explorers all they wish to know. The field emissions from these types of bodies would make them off-limits anyway.
One other point that is worth mentioning would be the need for artificial gravity aboard hyperspeed ships, not just for the sake of comfort and ease of work. It would be necessary for the passengers to survive moving at such speeds. Artificial gravity would protect the crew from the effects of relativity and inertia, which would tear a ship and its contents apart at light speeds. This is no small matter either. In films there is gravity everywhere and it is taken for granted. On a hyper ship it would be essential to the survival of the crew and structural integrity if the ship. It is also the one thing that would be hardest to maintain in the case of power loss. With any dip in power, a starship would drop into sub-light speed and lose gravity.
Another issue of artificial gravity would be the mass of the ship itself. A ship with greater mass would produce better, and more stable, gravity. A smaller ship would have to work harder and use more power to maintain a gravitational field. The idea of a small shuttle being able to do the job is a pretty tough sell in the real word of physics. But then again, it’s all just theory.
So is hyper speed possible? We don’t know yet. Modern physical science says: no, but there are some interesting things that suggest otherwise. One is the vastness of the universe itself. It would be a cruel joke on man and all the life in the universe to find itself trapped and out of communications range with each other for all time.
But there are already modern indications that matter within our universe reached hyperspeeds at its creation. There is also data which suggests that matter may be ejected from supernovas and ultranovas at speeds greater than light.
Then, there is the phenomenon of UFOs. They actually do exist, even though we have had little success at documenting them or determining what they are. One thing they are not: and that is a simple figment of the imagination. There have been fakes, and there have been misidentified natural occurrences, but there have also been real, documented and unquestionable sightings. If, as many believe, these are extra-terrestrial in origin, then the question of faster than light travel is at least implied by their presence.
The fact that we have not been contacted or captured any is certainly not difficult to understand. If you were an advanced race you would probably study us, but would you make contact? If aliens are advanced enough to come here, then surely they are also advanced enough to have had their Indians and Pacific Islanders.
The answers to all of these questions are for future generations. If there is one tragedy of our time, it is that we have yet to meet what is out there among the stars, and probably won’t in the near future. If I had one dream above all during my life, it would be to see humanity make contact with alien life. Of course, that could happen tomorrow.