Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Star Trek Future Will Most Likely Never Happen

Hat tip to Don Sensing at Sense of Events again, for "Fermi's paradox busted" and its link to Business Insider.  Another scientist has come to the realization that we will never have the future in which humans zip around the galaxy at high "warp speed" and spread out across the galaxy.  Space is just too damned big.  As Douglas Adams put it in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
“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.

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.
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.
  • 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. 
None of these speeds are going to happen without entirely new physics being discovered.

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.


  1. 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.

    If you recall, Kirk & Co were assigned to a quadrant (misnomer, but, hey, Scotty once referred to one of the ship's instruments as a polymath), of which there were, apparently, a large number.

    So there.

    Simply, there is no known physics that can allow that.

    I hope you're not saying the science is settled.

    1. I hope you're not saying the science is settled.

      No, I'm saying unless there's another revolution in physics we don't know of a way to do it. You never know what you don't know, but you can't say we don't know a lot or we don't have very useful physics. 20th century physics is very good at most everything.

      Someone once said something like, "once the theory has been demonstrated the rest is an engineering problem". The only theories I know that remotely seem able to get us there are related to warping space time, like in that link. We need more. Better.

      The 20th century started with physicists saying that except for a few minor points, physics was done. A few years later the revolution extended classical physics in quantum and relativistic domains. The trick is and always has been to extend physics without breaking the parts that work very well. The 20th century revolutions did that.

      The 21st century is starting with rumblings that the standard model has trouble, which sounds like the "clean up some messy details" of the early 20th. If we're lucky, someone will extend quantum and relativistic physics and find some new ways to do these things.

    2. Advancements in science will come after three things go away:
      1. Government/Leftist dictates on what is acceptable.
      2. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. (Die, monster! Why won't you die already, you unholy thing?)
      3. The misapplication of statistics (wee-P value worship).

    3. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics.

      Which high energy particle collider physics experiment shows which "interpretation" is more likely to be true than the others? What, none of the experiments? There is no evidence hinting at even the mere existence of any of the "interpretations"? As far as the experimentally-verified theory goes, the "interpretations" are believed to have no observable consequences distinguishable from each other?

      Why do so-called scientists believe these religious doctrines?

  2. Physics is physics, unless there is some amazing discovery, we will probably be like the alien race in Niven's and Pournelle's "The Mote In God's Eye" forever contained within the boundaries of our solar system. I don't believe that we will see fusion drves that will provide more than a fraction of a g of accelaration for practicle manned interplanetary ships, i.e. no Epstien Drive from The Expanse novels. I do believe we will figure out how to survive on extended interplanetary flights and live elsewhere than Earth.

  3. When America became a nation the idea that information could travel faster than a horse or a carrier pigeon was ludicrous....and believing it possible a sign of mental illness. Then telegraphy and radio came along. Then airplanes....and jets. ALL beyond the science of the 1700s. So while impossible now there might be discoveries to be made that will allow interstellar communication and travel. And it is equally possible that there is NOTHING that will EVER allow such imaginations to come true.
    At this point in science and knowledge we simply do not know. A prudent civilization would plan for both contingencies. But as I state frequently, we are a clever species, NOT an intelligent one.

  4. Humanity will expand throughout the galaxy, but it will be in large, self-sufficient traveling colonies ("Cities in Flight" took the simple plot device of upending whole cities and taking them along on walkabout).

    It will take enough generations that by the time we get to Borg Space we won't actually look very human anymore.

  5. When last I looked, per the series' cannon, Warp factor was always
    IOW, Warp 1 was = to c. (1x1x1=1)
    Warp 2 was 8c. (2x2x2=8)
    Warp 3 was 27c. (3x3x3=27)
    Warp 5 is 125c, not 213c.
    Warp 9 was 729c, not 2,083c.
    Warp 10 was 1000c.

    Don't know where you got your values.