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All aboard for faster-than-light travel

Reuters, March 16, 2021 6:45PM Kids News

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Chewbacca with actors Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford in the Millennium Falcon in a scene from Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition films. media_cameraChewbacca with actors Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford in the Millennium Falcon in a scene from Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition films.

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Spaceships zipping at the speed of light or faster are something from science fiction. Think of the Millennium Falcon in the Star Wars movies and the starship Enterprise in Star Trek.

But a new research paper by an American physicist offers a potential plan for actual real-life travel faster than the speed of light — called superluminal travel. It proposes using conventional physics rather than ideas based on hypothetical* particles and states of matter with exotic* physical properties.

The paper, published this week in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, moves the question of superluminal travel a step away from theoretical* research and a step toward an engineering challenge, according to physicist Erik Lentz, who did the work while at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

A huge hurdle remains, Dr Lentz said, in finding a way to vastly reduce the immense amount of energy needed to power a theoretical ‘warp drive’ engine before any hope of building a prototype*.

“A ‘warp drive’ technology is principally envisioned to speed up transportation in deep space,” Dr Lentz said. “It can be used to enhance current ambitions for interplanetary and interstellar travel by drastically shortening travel times and widening mission windows.”

The nearest star beyond our solar system is Proxima Centauri, located 4.25 light-years — the distance it takes light to travel in a year — away. Light travels at about 300,000 kilometres a second and 9.5 trillion kilometres in a year.

Scene showing USS Enterprise space ship from TV program "Star Trek" /TV/programs/Titles/Star/Trek media_cameraUSS Enterprise space ship from TV program Star Trek.

Using traditional rocket fuel, it would take about 50,000 to 70,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, and nuclear propulsion with proposed technology would get there in about 100 years, Dr Lentz said. A light-speed trip would take four years and three months.

Dr Lentz’s plan envisions* above-light-speed travel, which “holds the potential for one-way and round-trip distant interstellar travel within a human lifetime.”

“If we are limited to travelling at sub-light speed, then multi-generational spaceships must be used for destinations beyond the nearest stars, which is basically a glorified* burial casket for at least the first generation of people. I do not find that prospect nearly as inspiring,” he said.

His paper describes the theoretical construction of a class of soliton — a compact self-sustaining wave moving with constant velocity* through space – capable of superluminal motion. These solitons are often referred to as “warp bubbles” and they would provide the basis for a propulsion system.

“Currently, the amount of energy required for this new type of space propulsion drive is still immense,” Dr Lentz said. For a spacecraft of about 200m in diameter to exceed light speed, that could mean perhaps the energy equivalent of hundreds of times the mass of Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet.

A lot of work would be needed to make this a reality. Making it practical, Dr Lentz said, would require lowering the energy needs drastically down to the range of modern nuclear fission reactors. A way to create and accelerate the solitons also must be devised, he added.

Dr Lentz views the task as difficult, but not impossible. He said the next phase of theoretical research and development work could unfold over the next several years, with a fully functional prototype drive possible within the coming decade.

“The first truly superluminal drives may come some decades thereafter*,” Dr Lentz said. “I would like to see this technology in use in my lifetime.”

GLOSSARY

  • hypothetical: an idea rather than a reality
  • exotic: from somewhere else (not Earth)
  • theoretical: based on an idea, rather than something that has been done
  • prototype: a model
  • envisions: imagines
  • glorified: appearing more special than it really is
  • velocity: the speed of something
  • thereafter: after that time

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What is superluminal travel?
  2. What is a light-year?
  3. What has Star Wars got to do with this story?
  4. Who is Dr Lentz?
  5. When does Dr Lentz think this could be possible?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Superluminal Travel
Work with a partner and design your own superliminal travel prototype. This machine is going to take you travelling faster than the speed of light so you have to imagine what sort of features that might require!

Use the information from the Kids News article as well as your own imagination and creativity to develop your prototype.

Sketch it below detailing its key features.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Science, Design and Technologies, Personal and social, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
What might the future hold if interplanetary and interstellar travel becomes possible? Could it be advantageous or disadvantageous to planet Earth if it became a reality?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Science, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
Down-Level It
When you up-level a sentence, you do things to it to improve it: make it more interesting, or more complex.

But sometimes, when we read something it can be too complex and we don’t understand it very well. You ask someone to explain it to you, they do (in a simpler way) and you think, well why didn’t they just say that?

Go through the article and find a sentence or two that is complex, or hard to read.

Ask an adult what it means, or try and look some of the words up in the glossary.

Once you know what it means, see if you can rewrite it in a simpler way- down-level it.

Make sure you don’t change the meaning of the sentence in any way though.

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