How possible is Star Wars? Episode I: Is faster-than-light travel possible?

millennium-falcon.jpgEditor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series marking the 40th Anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Read Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.

Back in 1977, a movie inspired people to dream of a galaxy far, far away. It also caused a lot of kids to demand their parents buy a seemingly never-ending stream of action figures.

That movie is of course “Star Wars,” as everyone called it at the time, or otherwise known as “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.”

For all five of you left that have never seen the movie, it takes place in a time of a galactic civilization, where humans are dominant, alien species live alongside them and robots have minds of their own. The galactic civilization is controlled by the Empire, which is headed by, of course, the Emperor.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the release of “Star Wars,” I will be writing a series of columns looking at the things that are more “mundane” as far as Star Wars go, the things that make a high-tech galactic civilization possible, which exist in some form today: space travel, space colonization and artificial intelligence.

This week, we’ll look at space travel.

Space travel in Star Wars is similar to Star Trek in that one can travel hundreds, if not thousands, of light years almost instantly. This means the spacecraft are either going faster than light or folding space.

Both are probably far off. The fastest spacecraft we have right now is the New Horizon which travels 36,000 mph. At that speed, it took New Horizon 78 days to pass the orbit of Mars, which is 35-63 million miles from Earth (orbits vary). Now, compare that to a light year, which is 5.9 trillion miles miles. So, at its current rate, it would take New Horizon 18,641 years to travel a single light year. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter, which would take 1,864,100,000 years to cross in New Horizon.

That means that spacecraft in Star Wars would have to move really, really near-infinity fast.

But the problem with faster than light travel is not the amount of energy it would require, but the fact that it breaks a basic law of physics.

Here’s why.

“As objects travel faster and faster, they get heavier and heavier — the heavier they get, the harder it is to achieve acceleration, so you never get to the speed of light,” says Roger Rassool, a physicist at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Light is made up of photons. Photons have zero mass. So unlike us, a spacecraft or even an atom, it doesn’t get heavier or slower. Its fastest speed is essentially the universe’s fastest speed.

Even reaching near-light speed seems out of reach. At near-light speed, something truly weird happens: time dilation, which means time runs more slowly for objects moving very rapidly. Flying a rocket at 90 percent of light-speed, the passage of time for the rocket would be halved. The rocket’s pilot would see his watch advance only 10 minutes, while more than 20 minutes would pass for an Earthbound observer.

Now, if somehow faster-than-light travel were figured out, then truly weird things would happen … but I’d suggest talking to a physicist because it’s too long for this column.

The other method for traveling great distances across the galaxy nearly instantaneously will sound weird to most people because it requires folding time and space, or in other words creating a wormhole.

A wormhole is a theoretical passage through space-time that could create shortcuts for long journeys across the universe. We’ve never actually documented one or have had any evidence there might be one. But theoretically, the laws of astrophysics allow for it.

To even consider generating a wormhole for travel, though, one would need to find some exotic matter, which are hypothetical particles that have physical properties that would violate known laws of physics, such as having a negative mass.

So, we’re looking at generating something we can’t confirm exists with something that we can’t confirm exists.

See the problem?

But, we might have already tackled the first step of that. In April a team of physicists at Washington State University created a fluid that has “negative mass.” When it’s pushed it accelerates backwards.

So, let’s say we are able to move forward from there and create the theoretical matter. We’d generate the humongous amount of energy needed and build a super large structure to generate the energy. How large? Picture the size of a planet at the smallest and the size of a planet’s orbit at the largest.

If we managed to do all of that, we’d find that the wormhole would work pretty well for traveling great distances near instantaneously. We’d have our doorway to a galactic, maybe intergalactic civilization. After all, if you could fold space, you could probably go anywhere in the universe you wanted.

But there’s one thing that nags me.

So far, all I’ve heard are theories about generating the entrance side of the wormhole, I haven’t heard much in determining where the end would pop up. That seems like something one would want to consider before leaping in, unless they love taking chances.

So, maybe instead of “Star Wars,” we’d end up with “Lost in Space”?

While it may sound like the dream of instantaneous space travel is impossible, keep in mind that faster-than-light travel and wormholes are just the ideas we have today. Tomorrow, a totally new door may open.

Originally printed in the Batesville Daily Guard

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