Will we ever travel through space at speeds close to the speed of light?

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Moving at the speed of light would save time on a deep space journey, reducing it to years or even minutes depending on the destination, instead of hundreds of thousands of years. If such a technological achievement encounters many difficulties and is not conceivable for a long time, many possibilities have emerged: a nuclear propulsion engine, a Warp Drive or the use of wormholes or blur photonics. Something that makes you dream.

Light is an electromagnetic wave whose velocity in a vacuum is equal to about 300,000,000 meters per second (equivalent to 300,000 kilometers per second). In fact, it is a stream of protons with zero mass, and it is therefore hard to imagine that one day we could travel at the same speed aboard ships that weigh a certain amount of weight.

Moreover, Einstein’s theory of relativity stated at the beginning of the 20th century explains the impossibility of achieving this. According to the principle, an object gains mass with its acceleration. At a speed of 300,000 kilometers per second, it would therefore have a huge, almost infinite mass. Since it requires a lot of energy to accelerate a heavy object, the fuel needed to reach the speed of light will therefore approach infinity!

Nuclear propulsion requires an infinite amount of energy

However, the possibility of superluminal travel (greater than the speed of light) nurtures studies of advanced aerospace technologies that can allow it. In 1947, Stanislaw Ulam (a nuclear bomb pioneer) wanted to build a nuclear-powered spacecraft, as nuclear explosions produce very powerful propulsion. In the 1950s, the Orion project investigated the technique, allowing for a high specific impulse that could already reach 7% of the speed of light.

The artist’s impression of the nuclear-powered spaceship Orion. © NASA

According to the researchers, the force of the nuclear explosions should make it possible to satisfy the requirements for such a propulsion in relation to the mass of the vessel. This is the very first time that such an idea has been considered, but the Orion project will not succeed due to the risks associated with radioactivity. If other projects have appeared since, ” they were only intended to significantly increase the speed at which a chemically powered rocket reached “, explains to Uzbek & Rica Roland Lehoucq, astrophysicist at the Atomic Energy Commission. ” The targeted speeds were in the range of 1 to 10% of the speed of light, which is already significant for current thrusters, which are limited to less than 0.01% of the speed of light Today, there is only one organization left (Tau Zero Foundation) that dreams of the superluminal ship.

In fact, the propulsion technology of conventional engines seems rather weak in light of the amount of energy it requires. ” Moving solid matter at exactly the speed of light would require an infinite amount of energy adds the researcher. ” As an example, the simple kinetic energy of a 1000 ton ship launched at 10% of the speed of light is equivalent to the energy that humanity consumes in a year. “.

Warp Engine (or Warp Drive) would distort space-time to reach superluminal speeds

The engine type must therefore be changed, and so in 1994 Miguel Alcubierre plans to design a ship equipped with a distortion engine whose theory does not break Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Warp Drive Engine is said to distort space-time to work, using dark energy (possibly causing the universe to expand faster) and extra dimensions, the U.S. Department of Defense report released.

Warp Drive is a theoretical means of superluminal propulsion using space-time distortion. © ElixirOfKnowledge

Controlling these extra spatial dimensions could make it possible to manipulate the density of dark energy technologically and could result in the development of exotic propulsion technologies; especially Warp Drive “, We can read there. ” Travel between planets in our solar system would then take hours instead of years, and travel to local star systems would take weeks instead of hundreds of thousands of years. “.

To better consider how it works, we must understand that if the speed of motion of the particles cannot exceed the speed of light, the wave deformation of space-time (which contracts in one direction and expands in another) can change the situation. In fact, it would allow the hypothetical spacecraft to “surf” the wave of space-time, because the particles carried by its substance would then move away from each other at high speeds.

Only a Warp Drive should use “exotic” energy that behaves like negative energy (via quantum effects). It would be a matter of “manipulating” the dark energy to expand an additional dimension that would form a bubble capable of containing a vessel or a volume of 100 m³. But here, too, creating such a bubble would require an amount of dark energy whose mass would be almost infinite, and physicists do not yet know the nature of this energy, or how to produce or store it.

We must then turn to other options, such as using the wormholes created after the death of a star. In astrophysics, a wormhole refers to a hypothetical object that connects two separate regions of space-time (with a black hole on one side and a white hole on the other), forming a faster than light shortcut. through space-time. Except that in order to reach this wormhole far from us, we must find a solution for rapid movement in space …

Consider other technological solutions

In 2020, astronomers discovered invisible structures generated by gravitational interactions in the solar system: “cosmic highways” that allow rapid motion. In terms of efficiency, for example, the network can transport (without propulsion) objects from Jupiter to Neptune in a few decades instead of the hundreds of thousands of years normally required.

Alternatively, a technology called MEGA (Mach Effect Gravity Assist) includes another type of system that does not require fuel, only one source of electricity. But the most feasible project may well involve designing an interstellar photonic sail that would propel spacecraft at 20% of the speed of light, fast enough to take the trip to the nearest star and planetary system in about 20 days. Only years (instead of several millennia)), for example. As part of the Breakthrough Starshot project, researchers have already begun optimizing its design, taking into account the photon pressure on the sail and the possibility of a crack in its structure.

In terms of records, the Helios 2 probe for exploring the solar system still reached a speed of 253,000 km / h. But the Parker Solar Probe has exceeded it by reaching 700,000 km / h, which is still very far from the speed of light.

Constantly increasing the speed of spacecraft is a daunting challenge that requires a lot of time and resources, and research and development of new technologies to achieve this is an area whose progress is difficult to predict as it is highly dependent on research work. . While evolving technologies promise to come close soon, it will likely take decades or even centuries to mature them.

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