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With "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" opening today (Dec. 15), more than likely you're going to see at least one ship using hyperspace drive to travel faster than the speed of light. It's a staple of the "Star Wars" universe, dating back to the first movie in 1977, when Han Solo and his trusty band of renegades zipped between stars using the Millennium Falcon.

But is this hyperspace drive really a thing? Can you go faster than the speed of light? Like anything else in physics, the answer is complicated. The bottom line is maybe – but only if we can figure out how to get around some technological obstacles. ["Star Wars" Spaceships: Vehicles from a Galaxy Far, Far Away]

The first problem with a hyperspace drive is anything with mass – a starship, people, Wookiees – cannot go faster than the speed of light without fancy physics (which we'll get into in a moment.) That's a rule from Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. Simply put, the problem is your Millennium Falcon would acquire an infinite mass when it approaches lightspeed. That would mean you'd need an infinite amount of energy to move it – even more than the amount of energy used to blow up Alderaan. So that's a no-go.

 

But there's nothing in Einstein's equations that ban you from bending space to go faster than the speed of light. As you probably know, in our ordinary world we live in three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. (Some physicists call this space-time.) The sphere of space itself can – and has – traveled faster than the speed of light. For example, shortly after the Big Bang that formed our universe, space-time itself expanded (or inflated) faster than the speed of light.

 

The Alcubierre drive is a concept that takes advantage of bending space to make a ship go superfast – even faster than light. There still are a lot of problems with the concept, so it only exists as a mathematical idea. In theory, the drive would cause space-time to contract in front of the starship, and space-time would expand behind it.

 

In separate interviews with Space.com, physicists Eric Davis (at EarthTech International) and Gerald Cleaver (with Baylor University) independently compared the phenomenon to a surfer on a wave. Imagine that the surfboard is a starship; the surfer is the crew. The surfer is standing (relatively) still on their surfboard while the wave moves toward the shore. In the same way, a starship would stay still in space-time while space-time warps around it. [Warp Speed? The Hype of Hyperspace]

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Category: Science