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Exploring the Milky Way – Is Faster Than Light (FTL) a Pipe Dream?

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299,792km/s is the speed of light in a vacuum.  As it stands, humans have only managed to attain speeds of ~11km/s, showing just how staggeringly fast light travels and the massive gap between it and our capabilities.  For this reason, the idea of faster-than-light (FTL) travel remains firmly footed in science fiction, as opposed to reality – for now at least.

With an increasing understanding of just how vast the cosmos is and near-term endeavors that would have humans visiting Mars, there is no shortage of novel ideas exploring theoretical possibilities on how we can exceed, or at least approach, such speeds.  And while humans are, no doubt, generations away (if ever) from developing viable technology to transport substantial mass at such speeds, there is the possibility that we may one day achieve this with regard to communications.  In fact, a potential advancement in our understanding of, and approach towards FTL was recently detailed that may pave the way to this reality.

Establishing Light Speed Communications

In a paper titled “Hyperwave: Hyper-Fast Communication within General Relativity“, author Dr. Lorenzo Pieri outlined the use of what he calls ‘hypertubes' for achieving FTL communication.  Essentially, these Hypertubes manage negative energy for accelerating and decelerating warp bubbles (Hyperwaves).

At the core of the paper is the idea of the ‘warp bubble', which was initially proposed by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994.  This bubble is described as contracting space in front of it while expanding it behind.  The purpose of this is to, theoretically, allow an object to move faster than light without breaching the speed limit set by Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Notably, a key requirement for such a feat lay in the harnessing of “negative energy,” a phenomenon observed in the Casimir Effect, where quantum vacuum fluctuations generate measurable forces between objects occupying space in close proximity.

In the paper, the concept of a Hyperwave put forth by Dr. Pieri focuses on using small-radius warp bubbles for communication as opposed to transportation.  The reason for this is due to the astronomical amount of energy required for such a process.  By focusing on a warp bubble that is only required to transport data, the paper indicates that,

“…total negative energy requirements gets smaller than the energy contained in a lightning bolt, more than 70 orders of magnitude less than the original Alcubierre warp drive.”

These smaller bubbles could potentially encode and transmit information using modulated high-energy particle emissions, allowing for the transmission of complex data across vast distances at speeds FTL.

While the idea behind Hyperwaves is tantalizing, it is important to note that their practical implementation continues to present formidable challenges.

  • Creating and stabilizing these small-radius warp bubbles
  • Generating the necessary negative energy densities
  • Precisely controlling the warp bubble dynamics

Despite these hurdles, the paper is at the very least an interesting look into the research and ideas being explored surrounding the idea of FTL technologies.  While highly theoretical and far from practical application, this approach to FTL communication, if realized, could revolutionize information transmission, with profound implications for space exploration and global communication networks.

Missions to Mars

Interestingly, faster-than-light (FTL) communication could one day play a transformative role in future missions to Mars.  Here are a few examples of how it could impact missions to the red planet in the coming decades/millennia if it becomes feasible:

  1. Instantaneous Communication: Current communication with Mars involves a time delay ranging from 3 to 22 minutes each way, depending on its position relative to Earth. FTL communication would enable instantaneous or near-instantaneous data transmission, dramatically improving operational efficiency and safety for manned missions and robotic explorers.
  2. Enhanced Mission Control: Real-time communication would allow for more direct and effective control of rovers and other equipment. This could lead to more complex and nuanced exploration, as instructions and adjustments could be made on-the-fly rather than pre-programmed or delayed.
  3. Rapid Response to Emergencies: In case of emergencies or unforeseen situations, immediate communication would enable a faster response, potentially saving lives and mission-critical equipment.
  4. Scientific Data Transmission: FTL communication could revolutionize the speed at which scientific data is sent back to Earth. This would accelerate the analysis and publication of findings, potentially speeding up scientific advancements.
  5. Interplanetary Internet: The establishment of a reliable, high-speed communication network between Earth and Mars could pave the way for an interplanetary internet, enhancing data sharing and collaboration between planets.

While the potential benefits of FTL communication for Mars missions are significant, these remain speculative until the underlying technology is developed and proven viable. For the foreseeable future, Mars missions will continue to rely on conventional communication methods within the constraints of the speed of light.

What Theoretical Transport Technologies are Being Explored to Approach/Exceed the Speed of Light?

While humans will most definitely achieve FTL communications before the ability for FTL transport, this has not stopped the world's dreamers from outlining potential approaches towards achieving this goal.  As it stands, the following are three of the most popular theories on how we may one day achieve a feat that would allow humans to continue satiating our exploratory urges beyond the galaxy.

Solar Sails: This propulsion technology harnesses momentum transferred from photons, effectively utilizing light for propulsion.  Unlike conventional fuel-based propulsion, solar sails rely on the consistent pressure exerted by sunlight on large, ultra-thin reflective materials.  These sails could be kilometers wide but just a few hundred atoms thick, capturing the photon pressure from the Sun or other stars.

An interpretive illustration of a FTL Solar Sail

As light from the Sun hits these sails, it transfers momentum to the craft, gradually accelerating it to high speeds over time.  This method is particularly attractive for long-duration, deep space exploration as it requires no fuel.  This means a ship or probe utilizing such technology would have greatly reduced mass and no need for refueling.

The technology, still in developmental stages, holds potential for facilitating interstellar travel, especially when considering the use of powerful ground-based lasers to augment solar radiation.

Warp Bubbles: Warp bubbles propose bending or ‘warping' the fabric of space-time itself to achieve faster-than-light travel.  This concept, inspired by Einstein's theory of general relativity, involves creating a bubble of flat space-time around a spacecraft and then contracting space-time in front of it while expanding it behind.  This would theoretically allow the spacecraft to move within this ‘bubble', reaching effective speeds surpassing the speed of light without violating Einstein's theory.

An interpretive illustration of a Vessel travelling through a Warp Bubble

As higlighted in the aforementioned paper, significant theoretical and practical challenges remain before this approach becomes reality.  This includes the requirement of negative energy or exotic matter to create and stabilize these warp bubbles, which are substances still yet to be discovered or even fully understood.

Antimatter Propulsion: Antimatter propulsion is a futuristic concept that proposes using antimatter as a fuel source to achieve extremely high-speed space travel.  Antimatter, when it comes into contact with regular matter, annihilates in a burst of energy.  This resulting burst is believed to offer the highest energy density of any known method of propulsion.  In an antimatter propulsion system, this annihilation would be controlled to produce thrust, potentially allowing spacecraft to reach a significant fraction of the speed of light.

An interpretive illustration of a FTL Antimatter Propulsion engine.

This method could drastically reduce travel time within our solar system and possibly enable interstellar voyages.  However, there are immense challenges, including the production, storage, and handling of antimatter, as it is currently one of the most expensive and difficult-to-produce substances.

Moreover, the technology to efficiently harness the energy released from matter-antimatter annihilation for propulsion is yet to be developed. Despite these hurdles, antimatter propulsion remains one of the most promising avenues for achieving high-speed space travel in future explorations.


Top Aerospace Companies

If humans are ever going to achieve the kind of feats discussed above, it will require the concerted efforts of public and private companies alike to continue building on past achievements for generations to come.  For now, the following are examples of companies playing an early role in such feats as each advances our understanding and capabilities within the Aerospace sector.

*Figures provided below were accurate at the time of writing and are subject to change.  Any potential investor should verify metrics*

Publicly-Traded

1. Boeing Company

finviz dynamic chart for  BA

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)
157,557,132,127-43.55$-4.70

Boeing is a leading aerospace company and one of the largest manufacturers of commercial jetliners and defense, space, and security systems.  With a market capitalization of ~$158billion, Boeing plays a significant role in the aerospace industry, offering products and services that include commercial and military aircraft, satellites, weapons, electronic and defense systems, launch systems, advanced information and communication systems, and performance-based logistics and training​​.

2. Honeywell International Inc.

finviz dynamic chart for  HON

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)
135,330,972,20022.39$8.07

Honeywell, with a market capitalization of ~$135billion, is another major player in the aerospace sector.  The company is known for its diverse range of products and services, including aerospace products and services, control technologies for buildings, homes, and industry, as well as performance materials and technologies​.

3. Raytheon Corporation

finviz dynamic chart for  DNMR

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)
116,728,826,23516.14$2.15

Raytheon Technologies, with a market capitalization of ~$116billion, is a prominent aerospace and defense company that provides advanced systems and services for commercial, military, and government customers worldwide.  Its broad range of products includes aircraft engines, avionics, aerostructures, cybersecurity, missiles, air defense systems, and drones.

Privately-Held Companies

SpaceXFounded by Elon Musk in 2002, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or ‘SpaceX', is inarguably the leader of the private aerospace industry.  Known for its ambitious goals of reducing space transportation costs and enabling the colonization of Mars, SpaceX has achieved several significant milestones. These include the development of the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy rockets, and the Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft has successfully transported astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  Additionally, SpaceX is developing the Starship spacecraft, aimed at interplanetary travel, and the Starlink project, which seeks to provide global internet coverage via satellites.

Blue OriginFounded by Jeff Bezos in 2000, Blue Origin has focused on making space more accessible to private individuals and promoting a future where millions of people live and work in space.  Blue Origin's notable developments include the New Shepard rocket, designed for suborbital space tourism flights, and the development of the New Glenn orbital rocket.  The company also has ambitions in lunar landing systems and has been working on the Blue Moon lunar lander.


Final Thoughts

The idea of faster-than-light transport and communication taps into the innate curiosity and ambition of humankind.  Embracing these cutting-edge concepts of warp bubbles, antimatter propulsion, and hyperwave communication is more than just a technological endeavor; it's a testament to our relentless quest for knowledge and exploration.

The realization of FTL technology would not just revolutionize our understanding of the universe, but it would fundamentally alter our place within it, turning the once-impossible dreams of interstellar exploration and instant communication into tangible futures.