Gamers' Corner


FTL Travel: Warp, Jump, and Hyperspace

Written by John Buzdien

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The Problem

One of the precepts of a good sci-fi game is the existence of faster than light (FTL) travel. This is because the distances one must travel in space are simply overwhelming. Light travels at approximately 186,000 miles per second through a vacuum. It takes light from our own sun about eight minutes to reach Earth, and about four years to travel to its nearest stellar neighbor. Were you to drive to Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our own, you would need to plan on a forty-five million-year trip at typical highway speeds.

The Limitations

The speed of light is critical to physics as it relates to the motion of objects through space and time. Under some models of the universe, faster than light speed is theoretically possible. However, under the more commonly accepted model, as described by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is not. Einstein’s theory states simply, that as an object approaches the speed of light traveling through space, it requires a near infinite amount of energy to accelerate it more. Therefore, to achieve light speed would require an infinite amount of energy.

The Tricks of the Trade

Einstein’s theory raises numerous questions. If we can not reach light speed, then how can we ever exceed it? Some popular theories are working on ways around the limitations. One that has some promise, is a warp drive, others are the jump drive and the hyperspace drive. All of the drives use some method to “get around” Einstein’s speed of light speed bump.


A warp drive would allow a ship to apparently exceed light speed. The ship does this by moving a bubble of space along with the ship. That is, Einstein’s theory puts no limit on how fast space itself may move. So, the ship’s warp drive, distorts a small bubble of space, and forces it to move carrying the ship along with it. The ship only travels at a sedate pace, but the bubble of space around the ship moves at a high velocity for a net “faster than light” speed. It is analogous to walking up an escalator in the mall. If the rest of the shopping mall is space, and the escalator is the bubble around the ship, then the ship would be slowly walking up the escalator. To someone watching from somewhere else in the mall, it would appear that the ship was going much faster than its true speed.

The current drawback to a warp drive is that as the bubble of space moves, it would build a pressure front along the leading edge. This would have to be counter-acted with an anti-gravity or repelling force to maintain the integrity of the bubble. We do not have anything like that at this time. In addition, it is likely that such a device would require more power than we are currently able to generate onboard a ship.

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