Hyperdrives, Warp Speed, FTL: Is Light-Speed Possible?

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Moving close-to, at, or faster than light-speed has been a cornerstone of Sci-Fi for decades, but can we ever do it?

“Punch it, Chewy!” Han says. The Wookiee pushes the hyperdrive lever and the stars turn to star lines. The next thing you know, the Millenium Falcon appears three parsecs away while Imperial ships are breathing their exhaust. The ship made its iconic jump to light-speed via a hyperdrive—George Lucas’ vision for an interstellar engine. 

“Maximum warp, Mr. Scott,” Kirk commands, and the USS Enterprise’s warp drive propels the ship across the reaches of the federation. In addition to warp drives and factors, Star Trek also provided us with the concept of FTL, or “faster than light” technology.

FTL drives also show up in the 2000’s remake of Battlestar Galactica.

The point, of course, is that if you’re going to make a series or a sci-fi saga in which interstellar travel is integral, you’re going to have to figure out how your characters do it. 

Let’s Start with Star Wars:

Millennium Falcon at light-speed

Millennium Falcon at light-speed

X-Wings, Star Destroyers, the aforementioned Millenium Falcon… Virtually every ship in George Lucas’ Star Wars universe is outfitted with a hyperdrive. According to Wookieepedia, “The hyperdrive functioned by sending hypermatter particles to hurl a ship into hyperspace while preserving the vessel’s mass/energy profile and required a functional hyperdrive motivator to do so. The vessel then traveled along a programmed course until it dropped back into normal space—realspace—at its destination.” And of course, without that programmed course, hyperspace travel is especially perilous.

As Han Solo points out in A New Hope, “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy. Without precise calculations, you could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova, and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?”

Lucas and other Star Wars writers get around earth physics by the creation of “hyperspace” an alternate plane of existence into which the hyperdrive propels its ship. Of course, as far as we know, there’s no such thing as hyperspace in our galaxy (or universe, for that matter), so we’re bound by Einstein. But we’ll get into him later.

Throughout the Star Wars universe, Lucas and the others keep their explanations of how hyperdrives and hyperspace work to a vague minimum, which helps the viewer to suspend disbelief. After all, the more you reveal about how something works, the more questions people start to ask. And getting a craft to light-speed definitely requires some explaining. 

Moving on to Star Trek

USS Voyager

USS Voyager

Settle down, Trekkies. I know I probably should have started with Roddenberry’s universe—since it came first and all—but we all know I’m a bigger Star Wars fan, so that’s where I started. Still, as I just mentioned, the warp drive predates the hyperdrive by more than a decade. In fact, in the pilot episode back in 1965, it was actually called a hyperdrive. In that episode, the speeds at which the hyperdrive would propel the Enterprise were described in terms of “Time Warp Factor.” Eventually, “Time” and “Factor” were dropped and now that speed is more often referred to as simply “warp.”

How Warp Drives Work

According to Memory Alpha, “Warp drive was a technology that allowed space travel at faster-than-light speeds. It worked by generating warp fields to form a subspace bubble that enveloped the starship, distorting the local spacetime continuum and moving the starship at velocities that could greatly exceed the speed of light.” 

Similar to hyperspace, that subspace bubble allowed Roddenberry to get around Einstein and gave his ships the ability “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” 

Of course, in a universe as expansive as Star Trek, there are multiple incarnations of the warp drive. In fact, Memory Alpha lists ten of them. The USS Voyager boasts the fastest speeds of any Federation ship because its Class 9 warp drive is capable of cruising at warp 9.975. According to Wikipedia, “In the Voyager episode “Maneuvers”, it is mentioned that the speed of the Voyager is approximately two billion kilometers per second, which is 6667 times the speed of light. According to Gene Roddenberry’s first concept script, Star Trek is , the original Enterprise had a maximum speed of 0.73 light-years per hour, which is about 6395 times the speed of light. This corresponds roughly with warp 9.975 of the Okuda scale and the established maximum warp of the starship USS Voyager.”

Trekkies, it turns out have sussed out a lot more specifications about warp drives than Star Wars fans know about the Falcon. Again, though, the beauty of the system, the warp bubble, allows for speeds faster than light-speed and allows the ship to remain intact as matter. 

Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Others…

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

In the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, the show’s eponymous ship, along with most other ships both the human and Cylon fleets were equipped with FTL drives. As we’ve already established, FTL stands for “faster than light.” Of course, as far as we know, in the real world, matter can’t reach light-speed. And light-speed itself constitutes the cosmic speed limit. This is why Star Trek and other sci-fi universes create special dimensions for their vehicles like warp bubbles or hyperspace. In Battlestar, however, their FTL drives function a little differently.

Per the Battlestar Galactica Wiki, “The FTL Drive uses a dimensional transport effect. The ships instantaneously teleport from one point in space to another.[2] On human ships, the FTL Drives are powered by refined tylium.[3] When a ship jumps, it distorts the space around it and can damage other vessels that are too close. This can be seen in Someone to Watch Over Me when Boomer jumps away from the fleet just outside of Galactica’s flight pod. The spatial disruption tears holes in the outer hull of the ship, causing major damage to the ship.[4]” 

What About Serenity?   

Firefly class ship

Firefly class ship

We should consider another icon of the spacefaring sci-fi masses Serenity. The beloved ship owned and operated by Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew won the hearts of throngs of fans after just one season. The Firefly wiki lists Serenity’s drive a “standard radion/accelerator core.” It’s relatively hard to find any information on whether or not those drives move the ship at or close to the speed of light. However, the fact that Firefly takes place in a relatively small “verse” makes the need for such speeds less necessary. In fact, some fans have pointed calculated that at Serenity‘s posted max speed—5.5G—it would take about a week for the ship to cross the “verse.”

 

Could We Reach Light-Speed in Real Life?

As I type this, scientists all over the globe are working on it. Here’s a really cool video from MIT that explains how we might be able to actually get a Star Trek-style warp drive.

As our friend from MIT in this video explains, moving an object through space at light-speed is pretty much impossible so far as we know. He also points out that light-speed is the cosmic speed limit. However, spacetime itself can move at any speed—even faster than light.

Knowing this, scientists are working on a drive that would create the same kind of “warp bubble” explained in Star Trek. Essentially, instead of moving the ship through space, we’d be moving space around the ship. That little detail—the fact that spacetime itself has no speed limit, could allow us to travel the vast distances between stars in a much more realistic time frame.

Let’s Talk Distances

We’ve reported quite a bit on exoplanets over the last few weeks here on Space Porn. That’s because the search for exoplanets in the habitable zone of their respective stars has been a hot topic in astronomy of late. In fact, NASA recently reported finding several such planets, some as close as 19-40 light-years away. Considering the Universe is approximately 93 billion light-years across, those systems sit practically right next door. Still, those distances mean that even if we were able to hit that cosmic speed limit, it would still take a craft between 20 and 40 years to reach another system. That’s an entire generation or two, and a far cry from the hours or days it takes a ship like the Falcon, the Enterprise, or Serenity to traverse such distances.

With the warp drive tech described in the video above, though, we may be able to get around that speed limit.

Other Deep Space Propulsion Tech

Lightsail technology, championed by The Planetary Society, already works. The organization proved that last year with its Lightsail 2 mission. The idea is relatively simple, and with further development, it could prove a practical means for deep space propulsion. 

As mentioned in the video, Lightsail works by catching photons, which, while they have no mass, carry enough energy with them to propel a ship across the vacuum of space. And yes, photons are extremely small, so you have to catch billions of them, but once you do, you start to accelerate and don’t stop accelerating until you run out of range of the photons from the sun.

This makes it theoretically possible to reach incredibly fast speeds without the use of propellants. How fast? Well, if a light sail deployed close to the sun, it would travel 150,000 miles per hour within three years.  

In the short term, Lightsail can help us launch robotic missions like Voyager into deep space and gather data much faster than we can with traditional propellants. In the long term, however, it’s unlikely that light sails will ever reach anything close to light-speed, which is 670,616,629 mph. Don’t worry, I did the math for you. Lightsail’s theoretical top speed is only 0.022% of lightspeed. At that speed, it would take a light sail-driven craft approximately 85,000 years to reach an exoplanet 19 light-years away. 

By comparison, it would theoretically take Voyager about 26 hours at warp 9.975.

While light sail tech is awesome, so far it doesn’t seem to be a viable solution for human deep space travel. 

So Can We Reach Light-Speed?

Einstein revolutionized our understanding of gravity, spacetime, and light-speed. His famous E=MC2 equation describes what happens when an object approaches that cosmological speed limit. When a piece of matter approaches light-speed, it’s mass increases at a nearly incomprehensible rate. So does the energy required to move it. The closer you get to light-speed, the further you come toward being infinitely massive and requiring infinite energy to continue that velocity. According to Einstein, then, no. We can’t move at light speed. 

As noted in the video above, however, warp-drive technology may be possible. Still, it may take months or years to reach more distant destinations. Any ships we design will need to also solve the problems of how to support human life throughout the journey.

Still, science fiction allows us to start working on ways to solve those problems. In an interview with Popular Mechanics in 2012, Marc G. Millis, founder of the Tau Zero Foundation, which works on such issues, said, “…if we’re dealing with the survival of humanity, do we really want to procrastinate? If it’s going to take a couple centuries to figure it out, shouldn’t we start now, instead of when the asteroid is spotted, and we have three years to evacuate?”

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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1 Response

  1. Although there isn’t an FTL in “The Expanse”, they’ve got an interesting take on long distance travel. Basically they get the viewer to understand (and it’s realistically true) that it’s not just the speed of the ship that’s dangerous, it’s the acceleration and potential deceleration of the ship as well. So they literally have to schedule a deceleration far enough from their destination in order to stop safely. Cool *%+#.

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