What is fast warp drive or hyperspace

Deadly warp-powered travel

If we could really travel with warp drive and faster than light, our view would be rather monotonous: Because in front of the portholes of the spaceship, no star-shaped distorted stars would whiz past, as shown in Hollywood films. Instead it would just be bright - very bright. At least that's what four British physics students have determined. And this form of travel would also be quite unhealthy, as they report in the university journal “Physics Special Topics”.

When the spaceship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars start to leap into faster than light speed, Hollywood always looks the same: The stars expand into radial stripes and the ship speeds through these stripes like a tunnel. The reason for this is said to be that the ship, powered by a warp drive or similar fictional future technologies, moves faster than light. Therefore, according to the logic of the scriptwriters, the light of the stars should also form streaks like a time-lapse camera.

So far there is no evidence that traveling faster than light could one day become a reality. Because it actually contradicts the basic physical laws. But assuming that our descendants succeeded in somehow overturning these laws in the distant future - what would such a hyperspace journey look like for travelers? Riley Connors, Katie Dexter, Joshua Argyle and Cameron Scoular from the University of Leicester have now investigated this question in more detail. "The effects that occur in this process result from physical laws such as Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity," explains Argyle.

Glaring light instead of a microwave background

The result: no sign of stars or streaks of stars. Instead, hyperspace travelers would only see a large disk of extremely bright light. "If the Millennium Falcon actually existed and it could fly that fast, then sunglasses would be a good idea for the crew," says Connors. Because of the fast movement, a Doppler effect occurs: similar to the way a siren coming towards us sounds higher than one driving away from us, the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation also shifts to shorter wavelengths when something approaches these light sources quickly.

And contrary to our impression when looking at the night sky, the cosmos is by no means dark. Instead, it is filled with an almost even carpet of microwave radiation, the so-called microwave background. It is a relic from the early days of our cosmos shortly after the Big Bang. If we were to race through space at faster than light speed, this radiation would shift from the relatively long-wave microwave range to visible light. As a result, the universe appears to be filled with glistening light everywhere, as the physics students explain.

Hard X-rays instead of starlight

And not only that: The light from the stars visible to us would also shift into a shorter wave range - with fatal consequences. Because harmless light would then become hard X-rays. "The ship must therefore have a shield against this harmful radiation," says Connors. The intense radiation would have an unpleasant side effect: the radiation pressure would slow the ship down considerably. According to the calculations of the physicists, Han Solo would definitely have to take additional fuel and energy with him to compensate for this effect.

Regardless of whether traveling faster than light will one day be possible or not: Hollywood is definitely wrong with its portrayal. "Perhaps the film companies could take these physical effects into account in future films," Dexter hopes. Whether that is the case remains to be seen ...

(University of Leicester, January 15, 2013 - NPO)

January 15, 2013