5 Fictional Ways to Go Very Fast in Space

Space operas would be pretty boring without some way to go very far, very fast. Traveling at 40,000 miles per hour—the speed at which Voyager is zipping along—it would take around 17,000 years for the Vulcans to fly to Earth and make first contact. Chances are, by the time they got here we would have already bombed ourselves to extinction and been replaced by evolved apes. Nobody would pay to see a movie like that. To keep things interesting, here are a few fictional ways to go very fast in science fiction.

1. FTL Drive

Photo courtesy

Mr. Gaeta was probably the busiest man on the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica. In addition to his other duties, he was responsible for spinning up the ship’s FTL (Faster Than Light) drive and plotting jumps. While newer (and more annihilated) battlestars had computer networks to make sure the Galactica didn’t emerge from FTL in the middle of a moon, Gaeta had a protractor and grease pen.

FTL is perhaps a misnomer, or at least, misdirection. The ship never moves faster than light. Rather, it folds space and creates an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. (Rosen here being Nathan Rosen, Einstein’s colleague and proto-“other guy,” paving the way for such OGs as José Carreras, Michael Collins, and Joey Bishop.) This is better known as a wormhole, and sends the ship to some other point in space. The upshot is that the Galactica could move slower than a Chevy Nova and still travel faster than light. This also creates a few interesting problems and opportunities. FTL-capable ships such as Raptors can emerge inside planetary atmospheres for tactical missions, but can also emerge inside of planets, for very bad days. (A tip of the hat to Tough Guy and Carousel of Raptor 612, lost during the final search and rescue operation on Caprica.) Likewise, spinning up an FTL drive close to or inside of another ship can cause severe trauma to that ship’s hull, a likely result of the distortion of space itself.

One other point worth mentioning: Traveling great distances with FTL drives requires multiple jumps. There’s no “Lay in a course for Earth. Engage!” but rather, hundreds if not thousands of short, perilous jumps. (Cylon FTL drives are far more efficient, but even they have an upper limit.)

2. Warp Drive

Photo courtesy Memory Alpha

Your basic Starfleet warp drive is technically known as a Gravimetric Field Displacement Manifold, and is powered by matter/antimatter reactions. (But not by dilithium crystals, which serve only to focus said reactions into a flow of electro-plasma. The reactions themselves are fueled by deuterium. Everybody got that?) It works something like this: The warp drive generates a subspace field around the ship, distorting space-time itself and moving the ship very, very fast. Just how fast is measured by Warp Factors, with Warp 1 being the speed of light, and Warp 10 being impossible and infinite, I don’t care what that one atrocious episode of Star Trek Voyager said. (Note that in various episodes in various series, there is the occasional “Warp 15!” thrown around. That’s merely an adjustment of scale. It’s just easier to say “Warp 15” than to say, “Warp 9.9999999999999923. Engage!”)

Zefram Cochrane invented the human variant of the warp drive in 2063, which weirdly enough means that high school students today will be around for it and for first contact with the Vulcans, which happens immediately after warp speed is achieved.

Safety measure: In the event of a warp core breach, which is very bad, a starship can save itself by ejecting its core, except that one time in Star Trek: Generations when Geordi forgot about that.

3. Akwende Drive

Photo courtesy Wing Commander News.

The Terran Confederation Navy uses jump drives to move ships from one jump point to another over jump lines. (Each jump point is marked by a jump buoy.) For that one guy reading this who’s not an expert in Wing Commander physics, here’s what that means: Jump lines (sometimes called jump tunnels) are rare paths in space that are created by the gravity wells of celestial objects. For our purposes, think of them as interstellar jet streams. Each jump line’s point of entry in space is called a jump point. Space colonists mark jump points with jump buoys to help navigation systems lock onto locations with precision. Jump lines are sometimes bidirectional, but just as often not.

Special propulsion systems were developed to take advantage of jump lines. The most capable are Akwende Drives (also called Jump Drives), named for Dr. Shari Akwende, inventor of the faster-than-light Morvan Drive and first human discoverer of jump points.

The strategic importance of jump points is pretty obvious. Controlling both nodes on a jump line opens up huge new expanses of space. Their value increases further if nodes connect habitable planets, or additional jump points. For this reason, humans and Kilrathi often war over regions of space containing said points.

4. Imperium Warp Engine

Photo courtesy of the Warhammer 40,000 Wiki.

Parallel to the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a turbulent dimension called the Immaterium, or colloquially, “the Warp.” It consists entirely of the psychic energy that underpins the material universe. Scientists developed special spaceship propulsion drives to allow ships to enter the Warp and slip into its speeding currents. Upon exiting the Warp, the ship is found to have traveled tremendous distances in real space. The effect is faster-than-light travel.

The downside to entering a chaotic psychic realm is not only the daemons and dark gods that call it home, but also the certainty that such a dimension will immediately consume the soul of any traveler. To mitigate such risks, warp engines are equipped with devices that generate a protective Gellar Field around spacecraft. Still, traveling in such an inhospitable parallel universe is unpredictable at best, and ships often travel the Warp for weeks only to emerge and find that centuries have elapsed.

5. Infinite Improbability Drive

Here’s what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Infinite Improbability Drive: “The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace.”

For a long time, scientists worked hard to build such a drive, but after repeatedly turning up unsuccessful, deemed such a device a “virtual impossibility.” One evening, a student tackled the problem, reasoning that a virtual impossibility meant that it was, in fact, a finite improbability. He worked out how improbable it was, fed the data to a finite improbability generator, and created an infinite improbability drive out of thin air. He went on to win the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness, and to be lynched by a mob of scientists.

Physics later developed the Bistromathics drive, which, according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is “a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances without all that dangerous mucking about with Improbability Factors.” Bistromathics take advantage of the special relationship between numbers in restaurants—specifically the proper table seating for an indeterminate number of guests, the unpredictability of stated times of arrival (the study of which is called recipriversexcluson, itself defined as “a number whose existence can only be defined as being defined as being anything other than itself”), and the unique division of numbers on a bill.

According to the Guide, once bistromathics was recognized and understood, “So many mathematical conferences got held in such good restaurants that many of the finest minds of a generation died of obesity and heart failure and the science of maths was put back by years.”

Live Smarter
Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

Ted Cranford
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.


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