Traveling Faster Than the Speed of Light: Possible?
OK, I'll admit it: I've watched a lot of Star Trek in my time. And, like most kids my age, I was captivated by the fantasy world of Star Wars as well. Both series featured a futuristic era where the stars were easily within reach. The dream of reaching other worlds has never really left me, but humanity is still 'imprisoned' on planet Earth. Is faster than light travel possible for humans, or are we stuck here for good?
We live in a universe that's governed by an infinitely complex set of rules and constraints. Light speed is one of those. The speed of light, also known as c, is a physical constant, and it doesn't just represent light. C is the maximum speed at which any particle can potentially travel, including both light particles (photons) or particles with mass. You might even recognize c as part of the famous E = mc2 equation.
If that's true, how can a warp drive be possible? Traveling faster than light should technically be impossible, but there may be ways to 'bend' the rules under which the universe operates, and travel more quickly that way.
This article will go over a few of the theoretical ways that we might travel faster than the speed of light. That includes the Alcubierre warp drive theory, and the use of wormholes such as the Krasnikov tube.
By the way, I'm going to steer clear of super technical jargon and stay pretty 'general'. If you're interested in the equations and stuff that I'm referring to, just ask and I'll point you in the right direction.
Let's get started!
How Fast Can We Go with Current Technology?
The current technology allows for what's known as 'sub-luminal' travel. In other words, it's pretty slow. Speed is a relative thing. Voyager 1, which has recently exited the Solar System, has traveled farther than any other man-made creation. It travels at a speed of around 62,000 km/h, fast enough to encircle the globe once and then some, but in space terms that's really quite slow.
For example, it will be some 40,000 years before Voyager 1 comes anywhere close to another star. That's quite a bit longer than our recorded human history!
There are some theories on how we can reach and explore other solar systems and stars using conventional technology, such as constant acceleration. If a spacecraft were to be propelled at a constant rate of 1g, you could theoretically reach nearby stars in a few years.
The Daedalus Project: This was a theoretical process to analyze ways we could reach other stars in a single lifetime using conventional technology.
The concept was simple: you create a massive starship that's mostly fuel tanks. It would make use of fusion rockets to propel itself to over 10% of the speed of light. With Barnard's Star as a target, the Daedalus spacecraft would reach the star system in around 50 years.
There are a few drawbacks, however: first, the fuel source would be mostly Helium-3, which would have to be mined from Jupiter. Secondly, it would be around the same size as the Empire State Building, so it would be a huge undertaking.
Lastly, the spacecraft would have no way of slowing down! It would literally be a 'fly-by' of Barnard's Star, so we'd only have a few days to gather whatever information we could. Then we'd have a 5.9 year wait for the data to arrive.
Solar Sail Spacecraft: You might have heard of solar sails before. They make use of either the pressure of solar wind, or the pressure of light particles to accelerate.
How can light propel a spacecraft? Give that there is no (or very little) friction in space, a very small amount of pressure can propel an object. So, by using a huge sail and a laser or particle source in the home system, a sail spaceship can reach incredible speeds.
Of course, that means that the sail must be absolutely massive, probably in excess of 100 km at the very least, and it requires a laser with an unprecedented amount of power, probably beyond what humanity can muster at this point.
It does have the capability to travel to over 10% of the speed of light, and any sail spacecraft will be unburdened by fuel storage.
What is the Alcubierre Warp Drive? Superluminal Travel at our Fingertips?
In the mid 1990s, Miguel Alcubierre developed a theoretical way in which a spacecraft might conceivably travel faster than the speed of light without breaking any of the fundamental laws of physics.
The concept is a solution that falls within the constraints of Albert Einstein's field equations. The basic idea is that you'd use negative mass, or antimatter, to 'warp' space around the spacecraft.
The idea would be to contract the space in front of the craft, and to expand it behind, effectively placing the spaceship inside a 'bubble'. By this method, the spaceship would never be travelling faster than the speed of light within the bubble, but it would be moving far faster relative to the outside world and observers.
Alcubierre theorized that this craft could achieve a relative speed of up to 10 times the speed of light using this method.
Drawbacks and Downsides:
There are considerable criticisms to this method of travel. While it's theoretically quite possible, it's fairly out of reach in practical terms. It requires a form of energy that we aren't sure how to harness, and it requires it in vast quantities. Initially, Alcubierre theorized that mass-energy equivalent to the planet Jupiter would be necessary!
There are also concerns that Hawking radiation would be present at any point the spaceship started traveling faster than the speed of light, which would fry the occupants and destroy the ship.
In fact, they're not even sure that the ship operator would be able to communicate with the front of the ship to slow it down.
In 2012, NASA decided to pursue the concept of warping space to achieve faster than light speeds. This is headed by Harold White, and they will be focusing on warping space at the smallest scale to see if the theory holds.
White and his team have also theorized that by changing the bubble into a 'doughnut shape', a great deal of energy requirement can be shaved off, meaning that far less exotic matter is needed to achieve a workable Alcubierre warp drive.
In any event, the current experiments are aimed at determining feasibility, and it's unlikely that a working 'human sized' prototype will be ready any time soon.
What is the Krasnikov Tube? Using Wormholes
Another theoretical possibility to travel faster than the speed of light without using a warp drive is making use of wormholes. Einstein theorized that space-time is curved, and because of that there could be 'shortcuts' from one area to another.
Also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge, a wormhole is a place where space is folded in upon itself to create a link between two points.
It's tough to visualize (impossible, actually), but imagine a piece of paper with two dots on it. You can travel from dot A to dot B, but if you fold the piece of paper properly, the two dots are virtually in the same place.
The kind of wormhole needed for our purposes would be called 'transversable wormholes', because we'd need to travel through them in both directions. Current theory is pretty shaky, but it's possible wormholes existed naturally in the early universe.
Again, general relativity is preserved because at no point would anything be traveling faster than the speed of light. Instead, space itself would be folded to shorten the travel by a significant amount.
In order to hold open and maintain a wormhole, a shell of exotic matter would probably be required. Technologically, this shell would be extremely difficult to create and maintain, and it's probably some distance off in practical terms, if it's possible at all.
The Krasnikov Tube:
Developed by Serguei Krasnikov, the tube is theoretically possible but uses technology that we haven't yet achieved.
Essentially, a 'wake' must be created by traveling close to the speed of light. After traveling to a destination at close to superluminal speeds, a space-time distortion can be created, and you can travel back to the moment just after you departed.
This is a highly theoretical concept, and it's pretty unlikely to be turned into a reality anytime soon.
Warp Drive Poll:
So When Can I Buy a Warp Drive Spaceship?
Now that you've learned that a warp drive is theoretically possible, you're probably wondering the same thing as I am: when will it be practical?
I'd estimate that we're still a long way from any sort of usable warp drive system in a starship. Consider that we're still not even sure what antimatter is, let alone how to contain it without blowing ourselves up.
I expect that the next century will see a huge explosion in space travel, and we'll start populating and mining nearby asteroids and planets. We might even see a few generational ships head for the stars, especially since our telescopes are getting better and we might start detecting a few Earth-like exoplanets any day now.
I'm sure that if you told a man living in the year 1913 that we'd walk on the moon in 56 years, he'd scoff. I'm hoping to be similarly surprised!
Thanks for reading!
Questions, additions, or technical stuff? Post it here.
John Lindsay on April 27, 2018:
Juan Sanchez is correct in my opinion. It will take the intellectual resources of the entire planet for mankind to learn to travel in FTL mode. This is then a political issue that must be resolved. World unity with a democratic system that builds respect and acceptance of all of us for all of us must be our goal for now. Sounds like Star Trek? Sure but in that world they had many millions of highly educated people with a spiritual maturity much more advanced than today's world. Let's get cracking!
Juan Núñez Sanchez on February 10, 2018:
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It would take the entire scientific resource of planet Earth to make FTL travel possible. And given mankind's geopolitical penchant for war to subjugate each other, I highly doubt that type of space travel will become a reality. Until we become true to be truly homo sapiens sapiens not just in name, but in deed, any of these fanciful day-dreaming will be just that, day-dreaming. I'm not a cynic by nature, when I was a child, I dreamt of becoming an astronaut, and going to other worlds, like Mars. I even dreamt of going across the galactic seas, to other star systems, a meeting other sentient beings. Sixty years of life have taught me that it's a team effort. Until we learn to live in peace with each other here on this world, we will never be able to go among the stars, as I believe we were meant to.
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 17, 2013:
Good discussion of the possibilities for FTL travel. NASA's effort to determine if warping space is theoretically possible is particularly intriguing. As a retired engineer I'm sure that if the physicists ever prove it can be done, the engineers will sooner or later get it done. It'll be just a matter of time and money.
PDXBuys from Oregon on December 03, 2013:
I enjoyed your article. However, I am a bit of a cynic. I do not expect that mankind will ever advance technologically to do any of these theoretical things. We can't even figure out how to build and sell en electric car, which is a far simpler task!
Tom Schumacher from Huntington Beach, CA on December 02, 2013:
Excellent hub! Loved the read, although most of it is difficult to truly understand absent an advanced degree in mathematics or physics. But, trying to grasp the concept of warp drive, antimatter or even mining other planets and asteroids is intellectually stimulating. Fun! - Voted up!
David Trujillo Uribe from Medellin, Colombia on December 02, 2013:
You make quantum physics seem easy. I think that for human kind to develop these types of technologies we need to go through a cultural, economic and political transformation. Huge colonial spaceships need to be made on outer space, which means robot workers. Robots will replace the labor force but for that we need to develop the undeveloped countries, so humans can focus on technical and professional functions. The world needs to work together as a whole, forget about independent countries, we will all be one nation, can´t see why we can´t be one today.
Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on December 02, 2013:
Very intriguing hub indeed, I enjoyed reading this.
David from Birmingham, UK on December 02, 2013:
Fascinating hub. At least it's brought me up to date with current thinking. I love Star Trek too, but whether it will ever be possible I don't know. Would be nice to think so.
FitnezzJim from Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 02, 2013:
I'm surpised you didn't mention Dr. Mallett's theory on the interaction between photons and localized gravity fields.
It’s a Tangled Web, the Weave, when first we Navigate the Sieve.
Will Henry (author) from British Columbia on December 02, 2013:
Hub of the day? Neat! Thanks Hubpages,that was unexpected!
Edmund Custers on December 02, 2013:
This is very interesting information. I can't wait for us to start bending space-time. Wormholes are the coolest! Thanks for sharing this with us. Thumbs up!
Yoleen Lucas from Big Island of Hawaii on December 02, 2013:
There is already a medium that travels faster than the speed of light. It's called Gossip.
KevinStantonMcClintockMACantab from Stevenage, Herts, UK on December 02, 2013:
WhiteMuse on December 02, 2013:
I had read about wormholes. This was very interesting. The fact that they are even working on it is interesting. Scientists have worked somewhat with antimatter from what I have read. It would seem that if it gets out it is not good for us. Some people are quite worried about the experiments.
W1totalk on December 02, 2013:
This is an awesome hub. Warp drive is possible but it will be scary once its consistent.
Nimesh De Silva on December 02, 2013:
Same issue here. I look at them wide-eyed. But comprehend only like 5% :(
IzzyM from UK on December 02, 2013:
I suppose dark matter and worm-holes are the same thing? The universe is made up of 80% dark matter, and they don't know what it is. I find this subject fascinating, but a little bit beyond my understanding.
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on December 02, 2013:
Interesting. Faster than light is unlikely to be possible in my lifetime - but some day ....
Nimesh De Silva on December 02, 2013:
I'm always fascinated by this subject although my knowledge of physics is very limited to allow me to understand anything.
Alexander Silvius from Portland, Oregon on December 02, 2013:
Unfortunately, antimatter is not what we hoped it would be, according to Prof. Jeffrey Hangst, it takes more energy than it produces and when it contacts matter, there is no danger. I found this article about it: http://earthsky.org/human-world/jeffrey-hangst-cre... . Sort of like Doc in Back to the Future, he thought it would be the end of the world if you made eye contact with yourself, and there was a time when people believed your head would fly off if you went faster than 30 mph! - maybe on a supersonic aircraft ha ha.
I love the idea of wormholes, but in order to be feasible, space would have to be so curved, that it would virtually touch itself at every point in the universe in multiple variations of form - otherwise wormholes would be placed in a linear fashion and getting to a location where the wormhole you need exists would take just as long to travel that it becomes a moot point. Of course, if the universe is one giant folded sheet, then you could theoretically hop from wormhole to wormhole until you got close to your real destination.
These are so much fun to think about - thank you for stimulating my mind.
rajivmkumar on December 02, 2013:
Matthew Milam II from Chicago - Be A Blessing... Become A Hand Of God on December 02, 2013:
Dear Gadget Boy,
Interesting stuff. I'll have to leave it to the "Big Brains", and my great grandkids... it's way beyond me and my lifetime. Still, I'm thankful for just growing up with the visions from TV and the movies.
Will Henry (author) from British Columbia on November 04, 2013:
I've thought about that too: by the time you see an object in your path, you've already passed through it. I'm not sure how you'd get from A to B without hitting something. Since relativity is never compromised, everything surrounding the ship would be traveling at sub-light speed, but I'm not sure how particles, debris and asteroids could feasibly be avoided.
Dan on November 04, 2013:
Assuming that the space particles around the ship can actually be warped fast enough to achieve this? Basically the space particles would also have to bend/split faster than light since the ship would supposedly be traveling through them at that speed too. In less you can condense this "space" before even traveling?