Stargazing: Warping space

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.

Astronomer Ken Tapping looks over some of the electronics at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory.

The light from the nearest star after the Sun takes about four years to get to us.

The fastest spacecraft we have yet produced is moving at about 70,000 kilometres an hour. However, that is only some 0.006 per cent of the speed of light. At such a speed we would reach the star in about 60,000 years, and that is only the nearest one.

For us impatient, relatively short-lived individuals, this sort of space exploration is not attracting much interest. We can try to go faster, but Einstein and others have shown we cannot go through space faster than light, and our experiments with high-energy particle accelerators here on Earth prove this to be correct.

Even at 90 per cent  of the speed of light, space exploration beyond the Solar System will be extremely time-consuming. In addition, at such speeds, ploughing through even the rarefied clouds of gas and dust in space will cause radiation hazards for any human or robot explorers and could also damage the spacecraft. Moreover, as we get closer to the speed of light our clocks start running slower than those of the people we left at home. A short trip for us could be centuries for those who stayed home. This again is not a practical way to explore space. However, the early history of our universe suggests what might eventually lead to an alternative.

The universe began just under 14 billion years ago. In the beginning it was tiny, around the size of a proton, and incredibly dense and hot. It then started to expand, becoming cooler and more rarefied, eventually forming the universe we see around us today.

There is evidence that for a brief period it expanded at a speed far faster than the speed of light. This might seem to be impossible. However, this conclusion is due to a widespread misunderstanding of what the beginning of the universe was like. It was not an explosion shooting stuff in all directions out into space. It was an expansion of space itself, which carried everything with it, like dots moving farther apart on the surface of an expanding balloon.

Our understanding is that solid objects cannot move through space faster than light, but space itself can move at extremely high speeds, carrying things along with it. This idea is something that space agencies are researching as a method to open up the universe to us, to the point where getting to the nearest star could take as little as a week or two.

The idea is to make a “warp bubble,” a small pucker in space, stretching it a little behind the spacecraft and compressing it in front. This would make the spacecraft move forward, travelling with space rather than actually moving through it. The spacecraft inside the bubble is in a little bit of space that is not moving at all, so the speed of light limit does not apply here. The crew would feel no acceleration. The same idea could be used for slower-than-light travel, which would be just right for getting around in the Solar System.

Thinking this might be possible is a long way from making it happen. Leonardo da Vinci came up with the idea of the helicopter and powered flight, but actually making a working helicopter took around four centuries. Isaac Newton suggested that time and space are separate, constant and immutable.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century we have learned that they are bendable, joined together and interchangeable. We see this not only in our calculations, but out there in space. Even our GPS navigation systems have to take into account the distortion of space and time caused by our planet. Those warp bubbles are a physical possibility. The big job is finding out how to make them an engineering possibility. Then all those planets we are finding in orbit around other stars might actually become destinations.

Venus shines brilliantly, low in the Southwest after sunset. Mars, redder and much fainter, lies to Venus’ left. Jupiter rises in the early hours. The Moon will reach Last Quarter on the 19th.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Penticton photographer publishes book showcasing resilience of Okanagan people

Okanagan Strong showcases the bravery of many during crisis; from COVID-19, to floods, and fires

Survey, hotline launched amid probe into racist blood-alcohol guessing game at B.C. hospital

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has been appointed to lead an investigation by Health Minister Adrian Dix

Summerland steam train to begin operations

Reduced schedule, physical distancing planned for Kettle Valley Steam Railway beginning July 18

Summerland to hold meeting on solar project

Event on July 13 at 1 p.m. open to comments from the public

LETTER: Land for Summerland’s solar project site was designated for growth

Site represents close to 20 per cent of land marked for future growth

Canadian policing organization calls for decriminalization of simple illicit drug possession

Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police want policing focus of opioid crisis to be replaced with a health one

Pure magic: live performances revived in Revelstoke

Revelstoke Arts Council hosting Guerrilla Gigs on Wednesdays all summer long

B.C. appeals judge’s decision to leave three clubhouses in Hells Angels hands

The province has filed two notices of appeal related to the B.C. Supreme Court decision

Kelowna woman shares story of alleged dog attack

Resident Yuli Lavigne alleges the incident happened on Monday, July 6

Conservation officers relocate Spirit bear known to roam northwestern B.C.

Bear roamed valley north of Terrace for many years

Successful first week for Okanagan ride-sharing, service expansion underway

The service is expanding to Peachland, Lake Country, Penticton and Vernon by the end of July

B.C. premier applauds call to decriminalize drug possession

Police shouldn’t struggle with health issues, Horgan says

Kelowna woman fights off nighttime intruder

Kelowna RCMP are investigating a break-and-enter on Richter Street

Classical music festival going ahead in the Okanagan

The fifth annual Vernon Proms Classical Music Festival has modified programming to keep people safe

Most Read