Faster Than Light


With the demise of the Space Shuttle program, we’re now going to rely on the Russians and Soyuz.  In related news, cars will be replaced by chariots, electric guitars will be replaced by lutes, and the Internet will be replaced by the Pony Express.

I hear a lot of my friends talk about how nice it will be when we finally get to Mars.  I hear a lot of theories about what’s out there among the stars and how it all works.  But not me.  I don’t want to go to Mars.  I want to commute to Mars!  I want to catch a shuttle in the morning, see some sights, have lunch, do some shopping, and be home in time for dinner.  And I don’t want to theorize about what’s “out there”.  I want to go and see it for myself!

Concept Art courtesy Glenn Image Gallery, NASA

But Albert Einstein showed us all a roadblock.  Relativity states that nothing can travel faster than light.  To go the speed of light, an object would have infinite mass and would require infinite energy to move!  Physicists and mathematicians have an infinite hatred for infinity.  So much for my weekend trip to Vega.  How can we interact with aliens from other worlds when it would take at least several years to reach our closest neighboring star?  And that’s using technology we haven’t even invented yet!

But luckily, just as Relativity lays down a roadblock, it also gives us a loophole.  It gives us a curved space-time continuum.  We don’t have to exceed light’s velocity.  We only need to reach a destination before light can.

Perhaps I should explain for the uninitiated what I mean by a loophole.  It’s more like a shortcut really.  Imagine if there was a footrace around a track between Jesse Owens and Lou Costello.  There’s no way Costello can beat Owens in a fair and even race.  So when they line up at the starting line, Costello is in the inside lane and Owens on the outside.  When the starting gun fires, Owens takes off down the straightaway.  Costello, on the other hand, takes a step and turns left off the track.  He completes a circle about one meter in diameter and crosses the finish line before Owens hits the first turn.  By the same token, we don’t need to travel faster than light.  We only need to reach a destination before light can.  That’s what I mean by taking a shortcut.

One such shortcut being looked at is teleportation.  Imagine that.  You’re one place, then poof, you’re in another.  In Star Trek, the teleporters used a sort of “matter stream”.  The object being transported is broken down at the sub-atomic level and reassembled elsewhere.  Yet it has never been stated as to how the vital functions are to be restarted after the particles are reassembled.  Do we simply assume that every particle suddenly behaves the exact same way as when it left?  Just because you have a fully assembled body doesn’t mean it’s alive.  Any mortician can tell you that.  And what if a fly gets into the teleportation chamber?  Don’t ask.

Some scientists are now looking to quantum entanglement as a means of teleportation.  For those unfamiliar with quantum entanglement, it’s a strange phenomenon where two particles begin to interact and take on nearly identical characteristics before separating.  When used for teleportation, the matter is not transmitted, merely the information.  That means the original needs to be disintegrated.  I question the brilliance of these “scientists”.  Now we can debate whether or not the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day was any good, but it did show a good point.  They were trying to use cloning to achieve immortality.  But the villain ended up finding himself being killed by his own clone.  Likewise, teleporting by way of quantum entanglement isn’t teleportation at all.  It’s creating a clone, then killing the original.  Now I don’t know about you, but being torn completely apart at the sub-atomic level would totally harsh my day.

There might be another way to send someone through a spacial shortcut.  It’s unknown if wormholes are real or simply a mathematical anomaly.  But it looks promising.  For those who don’t know what wormholes are, take a piece of paper and mark a couple of dots at opposite corners.  They’re quite a distance apart.  Now bend the paper over so that the two points are nearly touching.  They’re much closer now.  If you were to poke a couple of holes through the paper at those points and made a tunnel between them, that’s the shortcut known as a wormhole.  Science fiction spacecraft which use this type of transportation use an engine often called a “jump drive”.  One of the best parts about this is that you don’t get forcibly ripped apart.  It merely opens a portal.  If you’re too lazy to go a few steps and cross through a portal, then you probably deserve to be atomized!  So what if you’re incapacitated and can’t move?  Then move the gateway.  In fact, the only known problems with wormholes are that we don’t know if they exist, if they do then they’re on the quantum scale and we have to enlarge them and keep them stable, and figuring out how to control where they lead.

Luckily there’s one more option.  Sometimes called “hyperspace”, the warp field, produced by “Negative Energy”, is a little more likely to come to fruition.  In this case, a spacecraft doesn’t even move.  Rather, the warp drive, also called a hyperdrive, moves space around the ship.  A warp drive contracts space in front of the ship and expands space behind it.  The best explanation I’ve found is in Dr. Michio Kaku’s book Hyperspace.  In it, Dr. Kaku describes standing on one side of a room-sized rug, lassoing a piece of furniture on the other side, and pulling it toward you.  The distance shortens, and the rug bunches up in between, or “warps”.  Although the idea of a “warp” drive has been around for quite some time, the idea of “surfing” a negative energy wave, also called an “Alcubierre Drive”, was first presented in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre.  It has one primary advantage over wormholes.  Steve Lamoreaux, a physicist at Yale University, believes he has been able to produce negative energy in a laboratory.  Granted, it only had the force of the weight of a red blood cell.  But with a few thousand of these generators, a usable warp drive might be produced!

So how would we power thousands of these generators?  The answer is most likely to be antimatter.  Antimatter is, as you might figure, the opposite of matter.  Instead of negatively-charged electrons, it has positively-charged positrons.  Instead of positively-charged protons, it has negatively-charged anti-protons.  When it comes into contact with matter, the two completely annihilate each other with a 100% mass to energy conversion.  Compare that with the less than 1% mass to energy conversion in nuclear fusion.  It takes less than a gram of antimatter to produce the same amount of energy as Little Boy being dropped on Hiroshima.  It also has enough energy to send the Space Shuttle to the moon and back!  What’s great is that recently, researchers at CERN have been able to hold some antimatter stable for 16 minutes.  Consider that the typical life span of antimatter is quite a bit less than a second.  Now that’s an extended lifespan!  Eat your heart out, Methuselah!  That’s an impressive leap forward.  The longer we can contain it, the more likely it can be used as fuel (once we can produce more of it).

So would a spacecraft have to be out of contact with Earth during its mission like a seafaring Magellan?  Not necessarily.  Now we don’t exactly have “subspace” transmissions.  But there might be another option.  I’ve heard about a company which has found a way to send messages faster than light.  But for the life of me, I can’t remember who it was.  However, I recently read about a team at Cornell University who have created an invisibility cloak by slowing down light like traffic on a highway, creating a photonic gap.  Then they speed it back up to cover up the hole.  They have only been able to hold it open for about 110 nanoseconds (and admit that known science can only hold it for no more than 120 milliseconds).  But the point isn’t invisibility.  The point is that after slowing it down, they sped up light … to faster than light!  Radio waves are nothing more than a non-visible frequency of electromagnetic radiation (light)!  (Perhaps we can also question the consistency of the speed of light.)  FTL communication just might be easier than previously thought.

Okay, so it’s a little ways off.  But the science seems to be sound, and we’re making great strides toward faster-than-light travel.  Once we can build a warp drive, then all we have to do is figure out how to attach it … to a Soyuz.  With duct tape I would presume.

[Main image:  The Brightest of Stars, courtesy NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team]




Daniel C. Handley

Dan Handley was raised a Trekkie, fell in love with "Star Wars" at an early age, and became obsessed with comic book superheroes. He spent his youth dreaming of how to get real superpowers, starships, and so on.

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