Going faster than light is the Holy Grail of space travel, and is often depicted in science fiction. It seems as easy as flicking the switch to jolt the ship into Hyperspace. I mean, it worked for Han Solo, right?
It was Einstein who first postulated the idea that the speed of light is constant in any “frame of reference”. Basically, no matter how fast you were going, light would always be moving away from you at the same speed. As counter-intuitive as this was, his theories of special relativity and general relativity have been borne out by direct observation and experiment.
Just about all of us use GPS data on a daily basis, with signals pinging from our smart phones through our networks to global satellites. The clocks on those GPS satellites all run slower than those on Earth, a direct prediction of relativity, and corrections are used on a routine basis to bring them into line with their “stationary” counterparts. Astronomers also routinely use Einstein’s predicted ‘gravity lensing’ to make observations of the universe, and have used this technique to pin down the enigmatic ‘dark matter’ that makes up so much of our universe.
So if Einstein’s predictions tell us we can’t go faster than the speed of light, is that it for our desire to go speeding through the Universe in our faster-than-light spaceship? Interestingly enough, not necessarily. . .
There are two potential loopholes than emerge from Einstein’s work, and both of them have to do with the way spacetime can fold up. The ‘warp drive’ and the more familiar idea of wormholes.
The warp drive, originally a concept from science fiction, is familiar from just about every episode of Star Trek. The idea for the warp drive is that spacetime would be expanded behind the spaceship, and compressed in front of it, to such a degree that the ship would seem to flash through vast distances in moments. The ship itself would not actually be moving, but be inside a ‘warp bubble’. This is a pretty exotic solution of Einstein’s equations, but physicists have shown that it is possible – at least mathematically. Despite moving so fast, the astronauts would not be subject to any inertial effects because they are not actually moving. They would, however, be in a state of ‘free fall’, due to the angle of folded space in front of them. Some people have questioned whether our warp drive pilots would get cooked by intense, blue-shifted light, but the jury seems to be still out on that one.
The warp drive has been dubbed the Alcubierre drive, after the physicist who first proposed this solution. Believe it or not, the theory was evolved by Alcubierre in response to the use of the warp drive on Star Trek. The travellers on the warp drive capable ship would be cut off from the outside universe, riding on a ‘wave’ of compressed space, along a corridor or warped space-time that would probably have to be constructed in advance, like some sort of cosmic superhighway. Alcubierre himself muses “We would need a series of generators of exotic matter along the way, like a highway, that manipulates space for you in a synchronized way”.
The graphic below gives a 2-dimensional representation of the spacetime around the ‘warp bubble’, stretched to create a gradient pushing the ship forward. Just don’t try to leave the bubble – you would get ripped apart.
To make the Alcubierre drive work we need a pretty exotic fuel – either negative matter or negative energy to be precise. Now that’s negative matter – as apposed to dark matter (which is invisible but has weight) or antimatter (positive energy but reversed charge). Both dark matter and anti-matter have been proven to exist. So far there is no proof that negative matter exists. If it did, it would fall up rather than down, and would have left any solar system long ago (being repelled by ordinary matter) and be drifting out in the middle of nowhere somewhere. So finding negative matter is going to be hard, but perhaps possible using gravity lensing techniques.
Negative energy, though – believe it or not – has been demonstrated by experiment.
In the experiment, two plates in a vacuum, positioned very close together, experience a net movement toward each other because of the ‘pressure’ difference of virtual particles being created at the quantum level around and between the plates. These are electron-antielectron pairs that burst out of nowhere for incredibly brief periods of time, then disappear as they collide (preserving the average energy stat). As brief as their appearance is, the particles create a real effect. That ‘pressure’ causes the predicted movement in the plates, and that equates to a net amount of energy. Since that energy is coming from ‘nowhere’ (and energy must be conserved) to make the whole system balance the plates have a net negative energy left between them. And how much? The effect, called the Casimir effect, was measured in the laboratory in 1996 at Los Alamos. The attractive force is the equivalent to 1/30,000 of the weight of an ant. We would need a lot more than that!
As a civilization, we are a long way from any faster than light travel, even if it is possible. It’s true that Einstein’s equations give solutions that show the possibility of both the warp drive and even wormhole travel, but are these real possibilities, or mere mathematical curiosities? If it is possible, we would need an awesome amount of energy. It’s estimated that to keep a transversable wormhole open wide enough to allow human travellers to pass through, you might need as much as a Jupiter mass of negative energy. That’s clearly well beyond us now.
That doesn’t mean we can’t reach the stars, just that we can’t get there quickly!
Fusion drives, or even antimatter drives, or a combination of the two, will enable us to construct starships that could travel at respectable fractions of the speed of light.
In my novel, The Tau Ceti Diversion, the starship Starburst uses a fusion drive, assisted by an antimatter ‘burst’ to reach a new solar system and look for planets to colonize. Much of the action in the book takes place on planet tidally locked to Tau Ceti, some 12 lightyears away.
The novel was officially launched on 1st September 2016, and is available in both electronic and print formats! Grab a copy!