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Warp Drives and Wormholes

In movies, spaceships zip between stars in a couple of minutes, or instantly beam themselves to another planet.

© A. Goobar HHT/Rex Shutterstock Hubble monitors supernova in nearby galaxy M82 - 21 Jan 2014 A Hubble Space Telescope composite image of a supernova explosion designated SN 2014J in the galaxy M82


In movies, spaceships zip between stars in a couple of minutes, or instantly beam themselves to another planet. Will we ever be able to do that? Well....maybe not. But it’s fun to think about!

No matter how zippy space ships get, there’s a limit to how fast they can go. The universe has a speed limit—nothing can travel faster than light, 186,000 miles (300,000 km) per second. This speed limit is part of space itself and isn’t going to change.

Light speed is pretty fast—but space is so fantastically huge that even light takes many years to get from one star to its nearest neighbor. Space ships take much longer.

The vast distances of space are a drag for space movies.

Science fiction writers have come up with many clever ideas to allow people in their stories to travel faster than light. You just need warp drives, wormholes, or transporters!

Will we ever see these in real life? It’s unlikely, since they bend some important laws of nature. But you never know!

Warp Drives

Science Fiction

Nothing can travel through space faster than light—but what if you move space itself? We just need to invent a way to stretch space behind a ship, and squash it up in front, like wrinkling a cloth—a warp drive!

The ship would move like a ball stuck in a Slinky. If you scrunch up the Slinky so the ball is near your hand, then let it go and scrunch the other end, the ball moves—even though it’s still stuck to the same bit of the Slinky. The Slinky is space, the ball is the ship.

Science

Surprisingly, some scientists have figured out (on paper) how this might be done. But to make it work, you’d need some very strange stuff: matter with negative mass. If you put some on a scale, it would weigh less the more you had! So far, no one knows if such a thing exists, or how to get any. Even if you had some, bending space might take a whole planet’s worth of energy. And a space wrinkle might blast apart the planet you’re going to. Oops.

But if you can solve these little problems...

Wormholes

Science Fiction

What about traveling through a wormhole? These are like bendy gravity tunnels through space. If we can just get into one, we could use it as a shortcut to another part of the universe!

Science

Wormholes are an interesting math idea. But no one has ever actually seen one. So we don’t know if they really exist. If they do exist, wormholes will have very strong gravity and energy fields around them. A spaceship flying into one might get pulverized into atoms or vaporized completely. Something might come out the other end, but it wouldn’t be your spaceship—just bits that used to be you. So...maybe let the worms go first.

Transporters

Science Fiction

OK, let’s ditch the spaceship. Why not just convert myself into energy or particles, “beam” myself across space, and re-form at the other end?

Science

Alas, sending all your atoms is not really any faster than sending your whole self—all your atoms weigh the same as you, and will need a container, and a rocket, or some will get lost. And who would put you back together?

I suppose you could record all the information about where every atom in your body goes and send that code as light (at light speed). Then someone could use that information to re-build you from atoms at your destination. But would that still be “you”?




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Kids Magazine: Warp Drives and Wormholes
Warp Drives and Wormholes
In movies, spaceships zip between stars in a couple of minutes, or instantly beam themselves to another planet.
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Kids Magazine
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