Space

Students calculate what hyperspace travel would actually look like

Students calculate what hypers...
Hyperspace as depicted by popular movies and TV shows (Image: Shutterstock)
Hyperspace as depicted by popular movies and TV shows (Image: Shutterstock)
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What University of Leicester physics students suggest hyperspace travel would really look like (Image: University of Leicester)
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What University of Leicester physics students suggest hyperspace travel would really look like (Image: University of Leicester)
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Hyperspace as depicted by popular movies and TV shows (Image: Shutterstock)
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Hyperspace as depicted by popular movies and TV shows (Image: Shutterstock)

The two Star franchises (Wars and Trek) and countless science fiction movies have given generations of armchair space travelers an idea of what to expect when looking out the window of a spaceship making the jump to light speed. But it appears these views are – if you’ll excuse the pun – a bit warped. Four students from the University of Leicester have used Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity to calculate what Han and Chewie would actually see as they made the jump to hyperspace.

The fourth year physics students – Riley Connors, Katie Dexter, Joshua Argyle, and Cameron Scoular – say that the crew wouldn’t see star lines stretching out past the ship during the jump to hyperspace, but would actually see a central disc of bright light. This is due to the Doppler effect, specifically the Doppler blue shift, that results in the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, shortening as the source of the light moves towards the observer.

What University of Leicester physics students suggest hyperspace travel would really look like (Image: University of Leicester)
What University of Leicester physics students suggest hyperspace travel would really look like (Image: University of Leicester)

As the spaceship makes the jump to hyperspace, the wavelength of the light from the stars would shift out of the visible spectrum into the X-ray range. Meanwhile, Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR), which is thermal radiation that is spread fairly uniformly across the universe and is thought to be left over from the Big Bang, would shift into the visible spectrum, appearing to the crew as a central disc of bright light.

“If the Millennium Falcon existed and really could travel that fast, sunglasses would certainly be advisable,” said Connors. “On top of this, the ship would need something to protect the crew from harmful X-ray radiation.”

Taking their investigations one step further, the students calculated that, despite being the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, the Millennium Falcon would also need to pack some extra energy to overcome the pressure exerted from the intense X-rays from stars that would push the ship back and cause it to slow down. The students say the pressure exerted on the ship would be comparable to that felt at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

“Perhaps Disney should take the physical implications of such high speed travel into account in their forthcoming films,” said Dexter, referring to the fact that Disney last year bought Lucasfilm for US$4.05 billion and plans to add to the Star Wars franchise with another trilogy.

That appears unlikely, not only because it would break with the precedent set by the existing movies, but because star lines look a hell of a lot cooler than a disc of light.

The students’ paper can be downloaded here (PDF)

Source: University of Leicester

18 comments
toolman65
"space may be the final frontier, but it's made in a Hollywood basement" Red Hot Chili Peppers
dsiap
Hi, The students didn't actually say anything about faster than light travel. They assumed the MF travelled just under light speed and then blue shifted everything and which would (maybe) cause a different EM radiation source to dominate the visible spectrum. I would be interested to know how light would work going though a warp bubble.
David Xanatos
FTL is NOT happening - but *effective* FTL is. Huge difference. Moving mass takes enormous amounts of energy, warping space does not. What does warping space look like? You literally see your destination zoom up to you as the space in front of you does a very wierd lensing effect. You step through this distortion onto the ground of your destination. You turn, look back at where you came from, and see that you are now surrounded by your destination - your point of origin is a very long way away, not even in sight. No streaks or large fuzzy glows. Cool, but very much less impressive than movie special effects...
Expanded Viewpoint
A friend of mine and I were discussing what, if anything, you might see as you approached the speed of light and then went beyond it. Or what you might see from outside of it if an object was to do that in front of you. Before I go any further, kudos to those students on factoring the upward shift of the ENTIRE EM spectrum into the equation! I had completely forgot about that part of it; light energy would shift upwards to UV and beyond due to the Doppler Effect. But now, as opposed to Early Greek times (it was thought by them at one time that our eyes created light which bounced off of things, thus making them visible to us), we know that we cannot see objects unless light from an energy source is bouncing off of them. Light is invisible to us, unless it is bouncing off of things be they small like molecules, or smoke or relatively large things like planets, or is coming straight at us from its source. Sound cannot travel upstream against a flow that is moving faster than the speed of sound, so how could we see with our eyes rays of light coming towards us, if we are traveling at or beyond light speed?? Imagine light from a star shining on a planet that we are approaching at light speed, and that reflected light has to reach our eyes, how could it possibly register as anything at all? It would be gone faster than the blink of an eye! You can't even see clearly the blades of a ceiling fan when it is on high speed! So therefore, even though there may be energy all around us, I posit that we wouldn't be able to tune into it because our body just isn't set up for that kind of an experience. You wouldn't see a star ship growing in length like a rubber band being stretched as in STTNG and you wouldn't see dots of light stretching out into long lines (recall where in Hot Rod Lincoln he says "Slow down, I see spots, the lines in the road just look like dots"), it would all just disappear from your sight, you'd be completely blind unless you somehow had a way of shifting the spectrum back down into your normal band of perception. If you could find a transparent substance that could slow the speed of light down enough, you might be able to see something again. But I don't know of anything short of transparent aluminum that can do that!! ;-P
Joseph Boe
This has already been calculated/theorized by other astrophysicists who've essentially said looking out the window at lightspeed would look exactly as it does before the jump. Primarily because even at lightspeed the distances are so great that you would not appear to be moving any faster. I'm no physicist so I don't know but, I'll take their word for it over that of the students until the answer is proven to be otherwise.
Artisteroi Rlsh Gadgeteer
Looks just the same way Spider Robinson described it a decade ago
David Nichols
If it were possible to travel faster than C, you would see NOTHING. Every spectum visible and otherwise would be doppler-shifted past cosmic ray frequencies.
Art Toegemann
The "Hollywood" depiction is accurate, showing the earliest moment(s) approaching the speed of light. Then the disc of light.
Jonathan Scott
So, what would you see behind you? A reddish black, black, or your place of origin?
William Carr
Nice try; but the Observer in this scenario isn't traveling faster than the Speed of Light. The SPACE the Observer is in, is what's moving, not the Starship. Trek Explanation: Your Starship is merely coasting on impulse thrusters; the Warp Drive decompresses Space in front of your ship, making the distance to the destination shorter, and compresses Space behind your ship. You ride forward in that Reference Frame. For you, it's as if the stars ahead are rushing TOWARD you. So you might see visual effects, as, after all, light is going to be altered as it passes through the decompression stage. A star directly ahead of you might not look odd, but stars off to the sides certainly would. Remember that "Blue Shift" happens in normal space when you are accelerating and the wavelength of incoming light gets compressed into higher frequencies. But in the "Warp Drive" scenario, you aren't accelerating. Here's an analogy; imagine that your Star Drive worked with tiny, instantaneous Jumps. It's called "Trans-Cilial Drive". You'd Jump; the duration would be so short you couldn't perceive it, but you'd be a light-day closer to your destination. Then you'd Jump again, with only microseconds between Jumps. Three Hundred and Sixty-Five quick Jumps equals one Light Year, and we're at Alpha Centauri Prime for breakfast. The light from stars ahead of you would be unaffected because you aren't accelerating. You're skipping in and out of normal space and avoiding the whole "Blue Shift" issue. Now consider that this is what is happening with Warp Drive. You aren't accelerating there, either. So the wavelength of incoming light doesn't get compressed, doesn't Blue Shift, and you don't get X-Rayed to death. Is there a likelihood that incoming light will be affected by the Decompression Field? Sure. And I'm sticking with the "streaks of light" image until I see proof to the contrary.