There are a number of last-second escapes in Star Wars thanks to a jump into hyperspace. The ability to travel across large distances by using hyperspace is essential to the Star Wars universe where planets across this galaxy are able to communicate, trade, and participate in a collective government. How likely is it that we will be able to use warp drives and faster than light travel to reach other stars or even other galaxies within one person’s lifetime?
The only way we’ve been able to travel through space so far is through rocket propulsion. This method utilizes the law of conservation of momentum – rockets push out burning fuel and blast off with equal but opposite force. Think of two ice skaters pushing off each other. Rockets work in the same way by pushing burning fuel out of the rocket. The momentum of the fuel exiting the rocket is the same as the momentum of the rocket being pushed in the opposite direction. However, rockets have two major drawbacks for interplanetary travel. They need to carry all the fuel they require with them and no matter how much fuel they spend they cannot pass the speed of light (about 300,000,000 meters per second). The closest earth-like planet to us is 1400 light years away. If the last Roman Emperor had a rocket that could take him to this planet, he would be arriving about now. The speed of light is pretty fast, but to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs you’re going to need to do better.
Or instead of going faster, you can make the distance shorter. The theory of relativity, which is currently our best understanding of the universe, allows for the bending and folding of space. By bending or folding space we are bringing point A and point B closer together so that, while we’re still not traveling faster than light, we are arriving at our destination in less time than it should take because the distance is shorter. All we need to do is come up with a way of doing that.
A lot of stories are coming out surrounding Eagleworks, a NASA project featuring Harold White. Lately they’ve been working on 2 projects involving next generation space travel. First is the White-Juday warp-field interferometer. A traditional interferometer shines light at a half-silvered mirror. The half-silvered mirror reflects half of the light and lets the other half straight through. A detector at the end can tell if the light travels the right distance to get out of phase. This allows us to measure the wavelength of light. What makes this setup different from other interferometers is the addition of a device that may disrupt and insert tiny bubbles in spacetime on one arm of the interferometer (pictured below). These tiny ripples would perhaps be enough to warp the path taken by half of the light and cause the light to go out of phase. While this method would detect distortions in spacetime, some scientists think that the effect is too small to measure and can easily be confused with changes in temperature.
In principle this effect can still be used to move a ship at warp speed. Work by the physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggest that if we were to scrunch up space in front of a ship and expand it behind the ship we’d be able to move as though going faster than the speed of light. The use of such an Alcubierre drive has a few difficulties including the requirement of anti-matter, negative energy densities, and large amounts of energy. Estimates vary for how much that might cost, but the lowest estimate with today’s technology would cost more than the world economic output for 40 years.
While this puts a damper on perhaps seeing interstellar travel within our lifetime outside of Star Wars movies, we have to remember what sort of advances humanity can make in 100 years. Think of how long it took to cross the Atlantic Ocean compared to today. Think of the internet connecting us, inspiring millions of collaborations. If we as a species continue to wonder about the vastness of space and give in to our explorer tendencies, we will make breakthrough after breakthrough to reach the stars. Just watch out for those asteroid fields.