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Research: Faster-than-light Travel

Most science fiction relies on some kind of faster-than-light travel to enable their stories to take place. If space travel took hundreds of years, we wouldn’t have a story. But physics has proven it’s impossible to travel faster than light.

I don’t understand the science, but according to Cosmos Magazine:

The faster something travels, the more massive it gets, and the more time slows– until you finally reach the speed of light, at which point time stops altogether.

It’s all based on the special theory of relativity. If you want the science, Wikipedia has a long article about it. But regardless of science, we science fiction writers have to have a way for spaceships to get about. The most well known is Star Trek’s warp drive, also found in Isaac Azimov’s I, Robot.

Warp Drive

The Star Trek universe and franchise has some quite serious-sounding technospeak about warp drive. There’s a whole Wikipedia article for that too. The idea is that at warp speed a ship can still interact with the space around it. The various settings for warp speed are the cube of the speed of light. So warp factor 1 is light speed, but warp factor 2 is 8 times light speed and warp factor 3 is 27 times light speed.

Star Trek: Enterprise describes the warp engine technology as a “Gravimetric Field Displacement Manifold” (Commander Tucker‘s tour, “Cold Front“), and describes the device as being powered by a matter/anti-matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles (one on each side of the ship) to create a displacement field.

In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre formulated a theoretical solution, called the Alcubierre drive, for faster-than-light travel which models the warp drive concept. Calculations found that such a model would require prohibitive amounts of negative energy or mass.


When the limitations of warp speed got too much, Star Trek invented transwarp. In the book Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual the author describes the idea of transwarp:

Finally, we had to create a back door for various powerful aliens like Q who got the knack of hurling the ship through the room for millions of light years during a commercial break.


Hyperspace (Astronomy Cafe)

In the 20th century the idea of hyperspace arose as a way of avoiding all the problems with FTL. Hyperspace is an entirely separate space where the rules in our galaxy don’t apply.

Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighbouring instants of time. (Foundation by Isaac Azimov)

It’s possible to get lost in hyperspace or travel too close to a star, and there are different methods of entering hyperspace.

Jump Gates

Jump point Babylon 5

Jump gates can be used either to enter hyperspace or to travel instantly between two points by folding space, and are often of alien construction so that no one knows how they actually work. The Babylon 5 TV series featured jump points which could either be opened by large ships or by constructed jump gates for smaller vessels.

Those are just the main methods thought up by science fiction writers, but there are many more. My science fiction is more fiction than science, so I stay away from any attempt to explain it.

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at

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