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Warp Speed: The Hype of Hyperspace

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Hyperspace travel is the premise that it’s possible to travel at speeds faster than light when energy from other dimensions is harnessed. The idea is a staple of science fiction writers. One famous example is “Star Trek,” where the starship Enterprise jumps from star system to star system to visit other planets.

“If Captain Kirk were constrained to move at the speed of our fastest rockets, it would take him a hundred thousand years just to get to the next star system,” said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif., in a 2010 interview with Space.com’s sister site LiveScience. “So science fiction has long postulated a way to beat the speed of light barrier so the story can move a little more quickly.”

The concept is also known as hyperdrive, subspace and warp speed. The lack of research and scholarly discussion on the transportation method make it more often a convenient literary device than scientific possibility, Shostak said.

In reality, the concept of hyperspace is “a lot of hype,” Shostak said.

The Millennium Falcon spaceship makes the “jump to light speed” in the movie Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Credit: 20TH CENTURY FOX

Physics suggests that shortcuts through space do exist, Shostak said. The curved nature of space was first proposed by Einstein, and quickly led to the idea of a wormhole: a portion of space that curves in on itself, connecting two otherwise distant parts of space. A spacecraft could theoretically skip ahead to a distant region of space if it enters such a wormhole between the two locations.

As in our familiar universe, objects in a wormhole would have to travel slower than the speed of light, which, in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second). But, a spaceship could appear to have exceeded this limit by traveling through a wormhole and reaching a star system thousand of lights years away in a matter of hours, for example.

However, our access to these inter-space freeways would be limited by the size of the portal.

“Wormholes, we think, are made all the time on a microscopic level,” Shostak said. “But the question is, can we actually use them for transportation?”

Finding or creating a wormhole that’s going to the right place and scooting through it before it closes up and smashes your spaceship to pieces are two unsolved problems that the laws of physics don’t clearly bar or allow.

Technically, it would be possible to warp space to create wormhole if one could place a very dense piece of mass in front of their ship, Shostak said. Perhaps similar to the “hyperspace engine” seen in the “Star Wars” movies, the object would distort the shape of space around it, essentially bringing the chosen destination closer to the ship. But the object would need to have the density of the center of a black hole in order to work.

“The problem is, where do you get the black hole and how do you get it in front of your spacecraft?” Shostak said. “It’s sort of like, how do you create something that will warp space and then put it in front of your spacecraft?”

A related science fiction idea is teleportation — the possibility of instantly conveying a person or ship into another part of the universe. The phenomenon is seen in “Star Trek,” where the so-called transporter deconstructs one’s body and reconstructs it at another, distant location.

There is some scientific basis for this idea — scientists have shown that subatomic particles can be moved from one point to another faster than the speed of light, said physicist Ian Durham at Saint Anselm College in a 2010 interview.

But the ability to break apart and reassemble an entire human appears impossible, Durham said. Because of the randomized aspects behind the arrangement of subatomic particles, perfectly reversing them becomes increasingly difficult as they accumulate in greater numbers.

While hyperspace is not a current form of space travel, there is ongoing research to determine how viable it is — and what the experience would be like.

In 2013, a group of physics students corrected the view of what happens when spaceships fly at the speed of light. The familiar special effect of streaks of light (seen in “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and other series) would not actually be the case. Instead, the view would appear more like a centralized bright glow.

The fast travel would cause light to shift into longer wavelengths due to the Doppler effect, which also explains phenomena such as why the sound of a car horn changes before it passes an observer and afterward. In space, humans would not be able to see starlight because its wavelengths would be stretched into the X-ray spectrum. Also, the glow of the universe — which glows in microwaves — would become visible because its light would be stretched into the visible spectrum.

For the past few years, news reports have been circulating about a real-life engine called the EmDrive. The concept was first designed by British researcher Roger Shawyer more than a decade ago, but hit wide public attention in 2015 after there were rumors saying that NASA was creating a warp drive. (NASA quickly said the effort “has not shown any tangible results” and emphasized it is not a warp drive.)

What makes the EmDrive interesting is the engine doesn’t use any propellant, instead functioning through reflecting microwaves inside of a chamber. A peer-reviewed paper in 2016 (led by Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center) said that despite this different design, a variant of the EmDrive does produce thrust. Two other successful tests were reported in 2012 (by a Chinese team) and in 2013 (by the same NASA team). Meanwhile, some researchers have said this engine violates Newton’s third law of physics, which (simply speaking) says that every action produces an equal but opposite reaction.

These are few of the many examples of warp drives used in science fiction, with an emphasis on television series and movies.

  • An early mention of warp drive (many sources say it was the first mention) was in the 1931 novel “Islands of Space,” by John W. Campbell. The plot in part concerned testing of faster-than-light ship.
  • “Doctor Who”: In this long-running British series, a machine called the TARDIS (which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) can transport the occupants through space or time, plopping them down in exact locations in the universe. The lore of the TARDIS is as sprawling as the “Doctor Who” series itself, which began in 1963 and continues to this day. Famously, a TARDIS looks bigger on the inside than it does on the outside. Some versions of a TARDIS look like an old British police box.
  • “Dune”: In this series of novels by Frank Herbert, the Holtzman Drive takes colonists to far-flung locations. This drive takes ships around the universe by warping space.
  • “Star Trek”: This is the most famous example of warp drives, which were first brought up in the 1967 episode “Metamorphosis.” Essentially, the device works through matter-antimatter reactions and can easily propel interstellar ships between galaxies. The newest spinoff, “Star Trek: Discovery” (which premiered in 2017) uses another propulsion system called the “spore drive,” which can travel almost instantaneously between different locations. 
  • “Star Wars”: This universe has certain ships that use a hyperdrive. The use of “hypermatter particles” allows a ship to go at the speed of light and then move in between stars in an alternate dimension called hyperspace. The hyperdrive (and the famous view of star streaks seen by the people operating it) was first seen in the 1977 movie “A New Hope” and has been a staple of the series ever since.
  • “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”: The Infinite Probability drive worked on sort of a quantum model, where it would transport people to one of the least improbable locations you’d expect. Originally a 1978 BBC comedy, the story rapidly expanded into books and television.
  • “Farscape”: The universe of “Farscape,” a Syfy network series that ran from 1999 to 2003, includes living ships called Leviathans. Some Leviathans have a starburst ability that lets them travel faster than light in case of emergency.
  • “Battlestar Galactica”: This ship, from a 1978 TV series of the same name and its reboot from 2004 to 2009, had a faster-than-light (or FTL) drive that it used to try to stay one step ahead of the menacing Cylons, mechanical beings who rose up to take revenge on their human creators. The cool thing about FTL drives was that it was hard to track a ship’s location between “jumps,” making it easier for the ship to evade the Cylons.

Additional reporting by contributor Zoe Macintosh.

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'Stargate Origins' Brings Classic Sci-Fi Back Tonight

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Mars Meteorite Will Return to the Red Planet with NASA Rover

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Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.

A chunk of rock that was once part of Mars, but landed on Earth as a meteorite, will return to the Red Planet aboard a NASA rover set to launch in 2020

The meteorite, known as Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) was found in Oman in 1999, but geologists determined that it likely originated on Mars, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists think collisions between Mars and other large bodies in the solar system’s early days sent chunks of the Red Planet into space, where they might wander for eons before falling onto Earth’s surface.  

Now, NASA scientists are using the meteorite to calibrate an instrument that will fly on the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to drop down on the Red Planet’s surface and collect rock samples that could one day be returned to Earth. One of the rover’s main goals is to evaluate the potential habitability of ancient and present-day Mars. [How NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Will Work (Infographic)]

The meteorite is being used to calibrate an instrument called the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), which will use techniques often used in forensic science to identify chemicals in the Martian rock samples, in features as thin as a human hair.

A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.

A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The researchers will study the meteorite on Earth, where they are able to make sure their instruments are producing a correct analysis of the rock, and understand what features of the rock are perceptible to their instruments. When the rover settles onto Mars, researchers can once again use the rock to make sure their instruments are working as they should be, before pointing them at features of the Martian surface. 

“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” said Luther Beegle, principal investigator for SHERLOC, in the statement. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”

There are only about 200 confirmed Martian meteorites that have been found on Earth, according to the statement. The SaU008 meteorite comes from London’s Natural History Museum, which lends out hundreds of meteorites (most of them not from Mars) every year for scientific studies. The SHERLOC team needed a Martian meteorite that was robust enough to endure the journey to Mars without flaking or crumbling. (Launch from Earth and entry into the Martian atmosphere are both very strenuous events for everything on board.) The rock also “needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity. These had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful,” according to the statement.  

A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.

A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Usually, instruments like SHERLOC are calibrated with a variety of materials including rock, metal and glass. And Mars meteorites have been used for instrument calibration in the past. In fact, another instrument aboard the Mars 2020 rover, called SuperCam, will be adding a Mars meteorite to NASA’s calibration target, according to the statement. And while this would be the first Mars meteorite to return to the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbits the Red Planet, carries a chunk of a Martian meteorite.

SHERLOC will carry other materials from Earth in addition to Su008, including materials that could be used to make a spacesuit for use on Mars. Observations of how the material withstands the radiation, atmosphere and temperature variations on Mars will provide valuable information for possible crewed trips to the Red Planet.  

“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, said in the statement. “It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Kepler Space Telescope Discovers 95 More Alien Planets

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Planets around other stars are the rule rather than the exception, and there are likely hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more than 2,400 alien worlds, including a new haul of 95 planets announced on Feb. 15, 2018.

The exoplanet discoveries by NASA’s Kepler space telescope keep rolling in.

Astronomers poring through data gathered during Kepler’s current extended mission, known as K2, have spotted 95 more alien planets, a new study reports. 

That brings the K2 tally to 292, and the total haul over Kepler’s entire operational life to nearly 2,440 — about two-thirds of all the alien worlds ever discovered. And more than 2,000 additional Kepler candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations or analysis. [7 Greatest Exoplanet Discoveries by NASA’s Kepler (So Far)]

Kepler launched in March 2009, on a mission to help scientists determine just how common rocky, potentially habitable worlds such as Earth are throughout the Milky Way. For four years, the spacecraft stared continuously at about 150,000 stars, looking for tiny dips in their brightness caused by the passage of planets across their faces.

This work was highly productive, as noted above. But in May 2013, the second of Kepler’s four orientation-maintaining “reaction wheels” failed, and the spacecraft lost its superprecise pointing ability, bringing the original mission to a close.

But mission managers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler using sunlight pressure, and the spacecraft soon embarked on its K2 mission, which involves exoplanet hunting on a more limited basis, as well as observing comets and asteroids in our own solar system, supernovas and a range of other objects and phenomena.

For the new study, researchers analyzed K2 data going all the way back to 2014, zeroing in on 275 “candidate” signals.

“We found that some of the signals were caused by multiple star systems or noise from the spacecraft,” study lead author Andrew Mayo, a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Denmark’s National Space Institute, said in a statement. “But we also detected planets that range from sub-Earth-sized to the size of Jupiter and larger.”

Indeed, 149 of the signals turned out to be caused by bona fide exoplanets, 95 of which are new discoveries. And one of the new ones is a record setter.

“We validated a planet on a 10-day orbit around a star called HD 212657, which is now the brightest star found by either the Kepler or K2 missions to host a validated planet,” Mayo said. “Planets around bright stars are important because astronomers can learn a lot about them from ground-based observatories.”

The new study was published today (Feb. 15) in The Astronomical Journal.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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Russian Cargo Ship Delivers 3 Tons of Supplies to Space Station

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