New calculations by a physicist at Germany’s Georg-August University, in Göttingen (more generally known as the University of Göttingen) has indicated that superluminal (faster-than-light) space travel may indeed one day be possible. Theoretical considerations of superluminal travel are based on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Hitherto, such theoretical research has had to posit the existence of hypothetical and exotic particles and states of matter. Such matter either cannot currently be detected or cannot be made in quantities sufficient to be of any use.
However, in a paper published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, Göttingen’s Dr Erik Lentz has circumvented this problem by positing a new type of a phenomenon known as a soliton. A soliton “is a compact wave that maintains its shape and moves at constant velocity”, in the words of the university’s press release. Lentz’s solitons are hyperfast, do not require exotic states of matter to exist and function, and could enable travel at any speed. In the context of space travel, solitons are also informally called ‘warp bubbles’.
Surveying existing theoretical research into superluminal space travel, Lentz noticed that there were gaps in the previous studies into what is popularly called ‘warp drive’. He found that there were configurations in spacetime curvature, organised into solitons, that had yet to be examined. These offered the possibility of allowing superluminal speeds, while remaining physically viable.
He derived Einstein’s equations for these unexamined soliton configurations and found that altered space time geometries could be created in such a manner that they worked even with conventional sources of energy. It would all remain within the realm of known physics. Effectively, superluminal travel would be made possible by the very structure of space time organised as a soliton. The spacecraft would be ‘enclosed’ by the soliton or warp bubble and would be stationary relative to the space immediately around it (which would also be enclosed by the soliton), thereby not violating Einstein’s famous universal ‘speed limit’ of the speed of light in a vacuum.
Using such a warp propulsion system, a starship could reach the nearest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri (4.2 light years distant), in less than four years. A spacecraft using nuclear propulsion would take about 100 years; one using current chemical rocket technology would require between 50 000 years and 70 000 years.
Moreover, in terms of his equations, the solitons would be configured so that the volume of spacetime that it enclosed would have minimal tidal forces, one of which would be the passage of time. This would mean that the passage of time in a starship launched from Earth would be the same as the passage of time on Earth. Einstein’s famous time dilation effect (in which time would flow more slowly for an astronaut travelling at high sublight – known as relativistic – speeds than for people back on Earth) would not occur.
“This work has moved the problem of faster-than-light travel one step away from theoretical research in fundamental physics and closer to engineering,” highlighted Lentz. “The next step is to figure out how to bring down the astronomical amount of energy needed to within the range of today’s technologies, such as a large modern nuclear fission plant. Then we can talk about building the first prototypes.”
“The energy required for this drive travelling at light speed encompassing a spacecraft of 100 metres in radius is on the order of hundreds of times the mass of the planet Jupiter,” he explained. “The energy savings would need to be drastic, of approximately 30 orders of magnitude to be in range of modern nuclear fission reactors. Fortunately, several energy-saving mechanisms have been proposed in earlier research that can potentially lower the energy required by nearly 60 orders of magnitude.” Lentz was now starting to examine whether these mechanisms were compatible with his discovery or would need modification or replacement.