“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”You should visit Business Insider if for no other reason than to see the animations he released on Twitter recently.
But a new animation by the planetary and space scientist James O'Donoghue, who used to work at NASA and is now employed by JAXA (Japan's national space agency), grounds the warp drives of those fictional spaceships in reality. He says the work gives him "a sense of despair" about traveling through space, even at superluminal speeds.While there is some theoretical work saying that a space warp drive might be possible, it remains out of reach. There really is no fixed set of speeds that has applied throughout the Star Trek universe, given the number of years the several series are spread over, but there are some generally agreed upon values.
O'Donoghue previously animated the speed of light within the solar system, and the results were depressing. After receiving widespread attention for those animations, he began wondering what going faster might look like in reality.
So O'Donoghue took the Federation starship USS Enterprise, commanded by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and sent it flying from the sun to Pluto at varying warp-speed velocities.
- Warp 1 is the speed of light, usually just called c. At 186,000 miles/second, that's the fastest known speed anything travels. Only light can travel at that speed in real world physics. Even at the tiny distance of Earth to Moon, c is limiting. It takes a radio wave 1.255 seconds (which varies as the Earth/moon distance varies) so real time control of systems is tricky. Remember, at this speed, the nearest star (Proxima Centauri) is still 4.3 years away. Pluto is 5-1/2 hours away. No spacecraft mankind has built has exceeded 0.1% of c.
- Warp 5 is 213 times faster than c. Sounds good, right? A sun to Pluto trip drops to a pretty fast minute and a half. All well and good. The trip to Proxima Centauri still takes a week and a half. Too long for an hour Trek episode, but it dramatically increases the sphere we could visit in a human lifetime.
- Warp 9.9 is 2,083 times faster than light. The sun to Pluto trip is only 9.5 seconds, and Proxima Centauri is 18 hours away. Even at this speed, to go to the far side of our galaxy would take more than an average human's adult lifetime.
Let's make a few big assumptions and believe we could accelerate a probe to a high fraction of the speed of light, like 0.9 or 0.95c. That acceleration and the deceleration at the other end of the trip will take time. A reasonable estimate (I've seen it a couple of times) is one year accelerating and one year decelerating, both at 1G so a human would be comfortable. That makes the 4.3 year trip to Proxima Centauri take 6.3 years - actually longer from not doing c, but rather a fraction of it. Nothing we can do to its radio signals can make them exceed c, so if the probe makes it there and starts studying the star system, the data it finds will take 4.3 years to get here. We don't know that such a mission could be done, but at least it doesn't violate any known physics.
Star Trek invented a wonderful system called subspace communication, a form of radio that allows instant communication from far flung missions back to earth or other Federation outposts. Simply, there is no known physics that can allow that. It's a plot device.
While I love the idea, seen in many space operas and not just Star Trek, that one day we'll buzz around the galaxy at speeds like this, it just doesn't appear to be possible. Unlike Dr. O'Donahue, I came to that realization years ago.