If mankind ever gets off this rock and becomes an interplanetary race, what’s next? If we’re colonizing Mars, mining the Moon, setting up marine biology bases on Europa and prospecting for precious metals on Pluto (could happen); suddenly our solar system would seem pretty small.
Once we are the purveyors of all the planets, dwarf planets and asteroids in our star system, it would be time for us to push into interstellar space and find other star systems to explore.
But there’s a problem. Using current technology, it takes months to fly from Earth to Mars (or hours if the hyperdrive takes off), a planet that’s on our doorstep. To fly to the nearest star would require some extreme patience (several human generations-worth of patience) or some extreme propulsion.
I for one would opt for the latter, but what kind of “extreme” propulsion would we need? A Star Trek favorite: the warp drive.
Unfortunately, there’s a potential problem with zipping around the universe at the speed of light. You hit stuff. But this “stuff” isn’t errant asteroids, vagabond planets or cloaked black holes (although I’m sure hitting any of those would do more than chip your windscreen). It’s gas.
William Edelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, has come forward, pointing out that although interstellar space contains only the thinnest wisps of gas (two atoms of hydrogen per cubic centimeter, compared with 30 billion billion atoms per cubic centimeter in our atmosphere), when you power through it relativistic speeds, these ‘thin wisps’ tend to get compressed at the front of your spaceship, blasting the interstellar travelers with a death ray, vaporizing them in an instant.
Our future space explorers won’t get space sick, but they won’t get to their destination either.
With the warpship concept for example (not too dislike the Starship Enterprise‘s mode of transportation), a “bubble” of spacetime is created around the spaceship. In front of the spaceship, spacetime is compressed and then expanded behind. It’s almost as if the warpship is “surfing” on a wave of spacetime, able to travel faster than light without breaking the laws of physics.
So, if you cranked your warpship to a fraction below the speed of light (that’s approximately Warp Factor 1 in the Star Trek universe, just in case you didn’t already know), your warp bubble would be compressing spacetime, in-turn concentrating those interstellar hydrogen atoms. Combine this fact with the very high kinetic energy of your spacecraft blasting through space and you’ve created a rather hazardous ride.
The hydrogen atoms will have become so energetic that the radiation from hitting this interstellar gas would vaporize the spaceship and everything inside within seconds.
“For the crew, it would be like standing in front of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] beam,” says Edelstein.
Although this all sounds rather grim, unsurprisingly this isn’t the first time objections have been made about warp drive propulsion. But the way I see it, if a sufficiently advanced human (or extraterrestrial) race manages to build a warpship, the hurdles we see today would probably have a solution in the future.
But right now, if you have the opportunity to rip through spacetime in your private warpship, keep your speed down. If you don’t, and you see the odometer push toward 670,616,629 miles per hour (the speed of light), you’re toast.