For speed fans it’s the holy grail. For scientists it’s a matter of fierce debate. For Kirk and Spock it’s what makes their jobs possible. “It” is faster than light (FTL) travel, and whether humans will ever accomplish it is anyone’s guess. But that won’t stop us from trying.
The Key to the Universe
Look in the sky on a clear night and you can see thousands of glittering lights shining overhead. A handful of those objects are planets, most of which have been visited by our space probes. The vast majority, however, are stars. The odds that we will ever travel to them are quite small. The problem is simple: they’re too damn far away for us to reach.
To get an idea of the kinds of distances we’re talking about, consider this: NASA has a craft racing towards Pluto at 36,000 mph while you’re reading these words. That’s about 170x faster than Bill Elliott’s 212.809 mph NASCAR qualifying speed in 1987. The probe is the fastest thing man has ever built. It would take you from Seattle to Atlanta in about five seconds. Yet that same ship would need 78,000 years to make it to Proxima Centauri, the closest star to earth other than the Sun itself. Even Miley Cyrus would be looking old by then.
Adding to this problem is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which says that nothing can travel faster than 186,000 miles a second, which is the speed of light. Explaining why this is true is beyond the scope of this article, not to mention my limited intellect. But this link offers a quick summary, one that doesn’t require a degree in advanced physics to understand.
Even at light speed, it would take four years to reach Proxima Centauri, then another four years for the return trip. To take a trek across the galaxy would require thousands of centuries, which is almost enough time for the government to actually do something.
Some scientists believe that there’s a way around these problems, however. To get an idea of what they have in mind, take a sheet of paper. Draw an X on one side and another X on the opposite side. If you were an ant, what would be the shortest route from one to the other?
Most people would say, “by going in a straight line.” And that’s a perfectly good answer in the everyday, common sense world most of us live in. But to physicists there’s an even quicker way: fold the paper so that one X is sitting on top of the other. This brings the points side by side, making the whole trip a quick jump across very little distance at all.
Now outer space isn’t a piece of paper. Nonetheless, it can be bent, making the idea a sound one. Star Trek fans probably remember Sulu or Geordi sitting on the bridge yelling, “Warp one! Warp two! Warp three!” and so on, as the Enterprise moved faster and faster. They were referring to how the ship’s engines were bending, or “warping” space, just like the sheet of paper in our experiment.
Will we ever be able to literally fold space and reduce the distance between the stars, however? At this point no one knows, though we do know that it would require more power than we have ever unleashed, way beyond the amount released by a hydrogen bomb.
Plus, it’s not just a matter of creating the energy. It would have to be channeled through the engines in an extremely precise way. One mistake and the mighty starship would be vaporized by the biggest explosion since the Big Bang. This probably explains why Scotty was drunk half the time; he knew just how close the ship was to blowing itself apart at any moment.
These ideas may sound crazy to us. But imagine what people in the year 1900 would have thought if someone told them that, within a century, people would walk on the moon, fly in the air, and talk to each other on little screens connected to something called the Internet. One generation’s science fiction is another’s everyday fact. So, will we ever break the ultimate speed limit? Or will it remain forever beyond our reach? Time will tell.