Is Interstellar Travel Possible?

Blog Post #1001

December 27, 2017

Is Interstellar Travel Possible?

Jeff W. Horton

Interstellar travel. Travel between the stars. Crossing the vastness of space that lies between one star system and the next. It is the next frontier for humanity, and it calls to us like the sea once did, to some, like the West once did for others.

The biggest problem is that the universe is big, unimaginably big, and the distances between star systems are often so vast. For example, using current technology, it could take over tens of thousands of years to make a return trip to our closest neighbor, Alpha-Centauri. If you stepped outside on your porch this evening and shone your flashlight directly toward our neighbor, it would take the light from your flashlight some 4 ½ years just to get there and, it there were a mirror there to bounce the light back, another 4 ½ years to make it back home. It would take nine years for your reflected light to get back to you. That’s a long, long ways.

So, what about Faster-Than-Light travel, or FTL. If you’ve ever watched StarGate Universe or any of a myriad of other science-fiction programs on television, or if you’ve read more than one science-fiction novel in the past decade (like Frontiers: Cybersp@ce Series Book Two for example) you would have likely heard the term, Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel. But what precisely is FTL, and why is it important, anyway? Unless you’re the captain of a starship or part of a galactic rebellion, who cares?  Well, you might be surprised.

Scientific discoveries, improvements in technology, medicine, agriculture, etc. have all led to longer lifespans across the globe, which in term has led to an explosion in the human population on our planet, which just exceeded 7.6 billion men, women, and children. Three countries hold over half of the world’s population; China, India, and The United States.

-China: 1.385 billion

-India: 1.335 billion

-United States: 325 million

The world’s population is expected to reach 11 billion by the turn of the 22nd century, nearing the maximum number of human beings some scientists believe the Earth can support.

Now I say all this not because I believe we need to reduce population growth. It’s impossible to do so without a significant and inexcusable intrusion into our personal liberty. A growth in population is a natural by-product of the previously improvements in technology and medicine, leading to longer lifespans and a higher infant survival rate.


There is another issue which while related to population, is actually a distinct and separate issue; some resources are finite and are not renewable, well, unless you can wait millions of years. I’m referring to fossil fuels, of course, crude oil, used for gasoline, diesel, etc. to power the world’s locomotion. It’s going to run out eventually, the only question is when. The need to search for and find alternatives sources of energy is essential to the future of our civilization. Take a brief look at another excerpt from Frontiers, which actually addresses and resolves a number of these issues by sharing highly advanced technology with the rest of the world:

“Montana motioned to one of his assistants. Images from all over the world suddenly appeared at various locations within the room.

“Mr. President, General Caprella, ladies and gentlemen, welcome. I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Please be patient and I’ll attempt to answer them as we go.

“I’m sure everyone here is painfully aware how the price of gasoline has been skyrocketing in recent years. Governments around the world have been offering all sorts of explanations for the sudden spike in pricing. Some have been blaming the rising prices on overpopulation, some on too few refineries, others on speculators, with most, of course, blaming the increased demand on the surging economies in Africa and Asia. There’s been a dirty little secret, however, one that I’d now like to share with each and every one of you in this room. This little tidbit has been known to only a very select few men and women across the planet, mostly to world leaders like President Raymond, so secret they’ve had to keep it to themselves in order to avoid a global panic, a revelation I will share with you now; our planet has nearly exhausted the last of its global crude oil supply.”

A murmur erupted throughout the room.

“Now,” Montana continued, “many have speculated that supplies were rapidly decreasing, but no one outside of a few world leaders realized just how rapidly they were being depleted. We discovered the seriousness of our predicament only six months ago, after a group of geologists were commissioned by the Department of Energy to study supplies all over the world, including conducting searches for possible, undiscovered supplies. The results of that study were quickly classified at above top-secret, and the scientists involved were sworn to secrecy, and threatened with being charged with treason should they speak about the study to anyone, including their families.

“According to the study, we have approximately six months of crude oil remaining, a fact we have since verified with several independent studies. This amount does not include the six-month emergency supply that most developed countries have kept in reserve, of course, but this still is a very serious crisis. Increased tensions over the rising cost of crude oil and the subsequent crippling blow to the world’s economies have already had substantial, negative impacts on geopolitics all over the globe.

“For example, recent fighting between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified again this morning, this after the latter deployed destroyers intended to hunt down and destroy the Iranian submarines that have been harassing the Saudis for a while now. Saudi Arabia, the once extremely wealthy, oil-rich nation, has expended much of its vast wealth in recent years, engaged in an arms race with its greatest Middle East rival, Iran.

“As most of you know, the fighting broke out between the two nations after several years of skirmishes, mostly over contested rights to oil reserves in the Persian Gulf itself. Iran purchased at least ten new ballistic missile submarines over the course of the last ten years, each capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which they began using about that time to harass the six oil platforms the Saudis built toward the end of their heyday as the world’s leading supplier of oil, before the bulk of their supply finally dried up. The Saudis purchased an equal number of guided missile destroyers, each also equipped with nuclear weapons, intended to counter the new Iranian threat.

“The Iranians started the arms race with the Saudis ten years ago, after surpassing Saudi Arabia to become the world’s major supplier of crude oil. They soon began using their newly discovered wealth to increase the size and the might of their military. Following the purchase of their first three nuclear-powered submarines armed with ICBMs, the Iranians also purchased their first aircraft carrier, which extended the Iranian influence into other parts of the world. Then recently, about two months ago, the Revolutionary Guard began setting up a number of ICBM launch sites strategically dispersed all over Iran, most pointing toward Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States.

“When news got out that Iranian nuclear missiles were pointing towards Saudi Arabia, their greatest competitor in the region, the Saudis went ape. They purchased destroyers, sped up their nuclear weapons research and development programs in Riyadh, and soon began purchasing components to begin building ballistic and intercontinental ballistic missile and delivery systems of their own.”

“Have there been any direct confrontations as of yet between the Iranian submarines and the Saudi destroyers?” President Raymond asked, clearly either surprisingly ignorant of the skirmishes, or attempting to draw attention to them for the sake of others in attendance.

Montana cast a short look towards Caprella. “No, sir, not yet. There have just been a few skirmishes, mostly the Saudis dropping depth charges once the Iranians subs had moved on.” Montana walked back and forth for a moment, clearly searching for a detail.

“Okay, so why are we here, General?”

“Mr. President, the truth is that virtually all oil supplies around the world have dried up, except for what little’s left in the Gulf.”

“What about the shale?” asked Raymond.

“Well sir, from what I’ve been told, the remaining quantity of shale oil has been greatly exaggerated, mostly in an attempt to stave off panic. The oil companies extracted what remained of the shale oil reserves about five years ago.”

“Are you expecting a full-scale war to break out between the Saudis and the Iranians over the world’s only remaining supply of crude oil?”

“Mr. President, to answer that question I’d like to defer to CIA Director Frank Murphy.”

A man in a dark gray suit near the other end of the table cleared his throat. “That is one of our concerns, Mr. President, yes. We now suspect that both the Saudis and the Iranians know that the world’s oil supply has failed, and that what little remains is located under the Persian Gulf. Each nation is determined to do whatever they have to in order to control that supply and through it, the world.”

“Okay, Frank, thanks.” Raymond turned back to Montana. “So, Jim, I’m assuming that since you called us here, you must have some thoughts by now about how to address this?”

“Yes, sir, I do have some thoughts, but they’re not just mine. This crisis isn’t limited only to the Iranians and the Saudis, or even to Persian Gulf. The hard truth is that our entire world has become dependent on oil, addicted to it, even in remote parts of the world. We’re starting to see similar skirmishes flare up all over the world, especially between Russia, Japan, and China, between various nations scattered throughout South America, and even in parts of Europe.

“Therefore, we’ve had to come up with a phased approach for dealing with this immediate worldwide crisis, before one or more of these conflicts go nuclear, if they haven’t already. Phase I addresses the crisis in the Persian Gulf, and for that I’d like to defer to Tom.”

Everyone turned to face Admiral Thomas Franklin, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Thanks, Jim,” Franklin answered. “Mr. President, we feel we must act, and soon, before the situation spirals out of control in the Persian Gulf. As you know, the Middle East has always been a tinderbox, but now it’s more volatile than ever. First, consider the fact that we’ve been at odds with Iran for many decades, nearly declaring open war with them on several occasions. Next, keep in mind that we are not the only major world power with an interest in access to what little oil remains; Russia, China, nearly every country on the planet is willing to go to war if necessary over whatever oil remains. Add that to the already very precipitous standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and you have a recipe for global conflict.”

The day will arrive when there is no more oil, so we’d best be prepared, with alternative energy sources already in place and long-since having replaced fossil fuels as the world’s leading energy source.

The population issue must also be addressed at some point, however, as demand on resources gradually begins to overtake the supply. If nothing is done, it will inevitably place increasing pressure on governments to secure access to resources for their respective populations, potentially leading to conflicts or even wars. It’s therefore likely that world leaders will begin to see a growing need to find alternative resources for humanity.  Now certainly the case could be made that with three-quarters of the earth’s surface being covered in water, that humanity has much more it could to not only with harvesting resources from the ocean, but with finding new ways of living on or under the surface of the world’s oceans. Still, the question will always remain, what about space?

Which brings us back to the discussion around FTL; is it possible and why do we need it? The most obvious reason for wanting FTL is it’s fast. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second), so Faster-Than-Light travel is fast, very-fast.  When you’re talking about crossing the endless void of empty space just to get from Point A to Point B believe me, you’ll want fast. But is fast really what we’re after, or is it just what we thought we wanted? Take a look at the following two excerpts from my novel, Frontiers; in which humanity builds and successfully tests its first interstellar spaceship.

To set the scene Hank Reynolds, the man who will be piloting the ship also helped design and build it, is preparing for a simulated test-flight. Hanks is talking in both excerpts with his girlfriend Hailey.

First except from Frontiers, Cybersp@ce Series Book 2, by Jeff W. Horton


“Just think of it, experts argued for decades about quantized space-time. Then, for twenty years or so there were several published papers about LQT, or loop quantum theory. They were all wrong, of course!”

“What do you mean?”

“Despite what some theoretical physicists may say, Albert Einstein never claimed that the General Theory of Relativity was the end all of cosmology. In fact, many of the more recent theories about space-time are much closer to the truth. When it comes to traveling faster than light, PDT rules.”

“What is PDT?”

“The quantum engines actually use something called Phased Dimensional Shifting, or PDT, to achieve Faster Than Light travel, or FTL. The theory has to do with slipping slightly into an alternate state of being, another dimension, enabling travel for vast distances. Dad and I have had a number of conversations over the years about various theories that might account for how the ship was capable of interstellar travel. Based on what I’ve learned from developing the quantum engines, they definitely rely on PDT, or something very close to it.”


In this next excerpt, Hank has successfully flown the craft to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star-system to our own, some 4.3 light-years away from earth. Now Einstein describes why literal FTL travel is impossible, which leads us t a sort of non-literal FTL travel:

Second except from Frontiers, Cybersp@ce Series Book 2, by  Jeff W. Horton


“Hank, where are you? Did the quantum engines work; did you make it to Alpha Centauri?”

Based on what she saw in the three-dimensional holographic display, Hank then turned to look at something in the ship.

“Hold on a second, you’ve got to see this––” he replied with a grin. He turned and pressed a switch, which instantly activated a camera that displayed what was outside of the ship. In spite of everything she’d been through, Hailey gasped in awe as she beheld a most wondrous image before her, a vision of a never-before seen section of the universe, with two of the three stars in the system along with several strange, alien, planetary bodies, all projected against the black blanket of space.

“I would like to call your attention off to the port of the ship, where we have the large yellow star that we refer to as Alpha Centauri A, which looks remarkably like Sol, the life-giving star around which our own Earth revolves, what we typically refer to as the ‘sun.’

“Now closer to the middle of our view, we have a second star; this one is considerably smaller than the first and is orange in color rather than yellow, and is relatively close to Alpha Centauri A, astronomically speaking. This second, smaller star is known on Earth as Alpha Centauri B. Off in the distance there, to your far right, you should be able to see another, much fainter light; that is the third star in the Alpha Centauri system, and also the Earth’s nearest neighbor, Proxima, also known as Alpha Centauri C. That makes Earth’s nearest star system a binary system, though some include Proxima and refer to the system as a triple-star system.

“Now, if you look down toward the bottom of your projected image, you will see a small, brown planet about the size of the Earth. This world has a scarred and tortured surface, however, the result of its proximity to Alpha Centauri A. All in all, it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it Hailey?”

“That’s an understatement, Hank; it’s absolutely amazing! Wow! How long did it take you to get there?” she asked him, her eyes filled with wonder.

“These quantum engines are something else, Hailey. It me took one hour, forty-five minutes.”

Hailey punched at a keyboard for a few moments. “Do you have any idea how fast you traveled, Hank? That’s 419,047,619,047.61 kilometers per minute, or 23,297 times the speed of light!”

Hank frowned and shook his head. “No, Hailey, remember your physics; that would be impossible, at least assuming Einstein’s theory of relativity is still correct. What the quantum engine does is open up an inter-dimensional window, a passageway through another dimension, which makes covering the vast distances of the universe much easier. Besides, even if the ship could travel that fast, you and everyone else on Earth would be long-dead by the time I arrived, since time travels slower the closer you get to the speed of light, much less thousands of times the speed of light!”

In Frontiers, Hailey proclaims the ship traveled 23,297 times the speed of light to arrive at Alpha-Centauri in an hour-and-a-half. Hank quickly corrects her, stating that would be impossible as predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. He goes on to state that the ship’s quantum engines open-up an inter-dimensional window, which essentially provides short-cuts from one point in space to another.

Next, Hank puts his finger on the crux of the matter, the underlying and pesky issue that makes any traditional form of linear propulsion and acceleration a non-starter from the very beginning.

“Besides, even if the ship could travel that fast, you and everyone else on Earth would be long-dead by the time I arrived, since time travels slower the closer you get to the speed of light, much less thousands of times the speed of light!”

If you’ve seen the movie Interstellar you’ve seen this same issue play out. Traveling at high speeds in space-time is essentially a way of moving through time, into the future. What good will it do to travel the universe, when everyone we know, and love will be dead and gone when we return? Only when we can safely bounce around the universe without traveling through time will we be able to take significant advantage of FTL travel.

Science-fiction authors and screenwriters have addressed the challenges posed by the vastness of space by coming up with creative solutions like the hyperdrive, folding space, black holes, worm hole drives, white holes, slipstream drives, and of course, warp drives.

It turns out that some of these theoretical technologies could offer some hope for one day enabling us to travel the stars. enough that NASA is funding research into warp drives, worm holes, and something called magnetic portals. Take a look at this excerpt from an article in Forbes Magazine.

The challenges to achieving interstellar travel, while sobering, have not stopped the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from providing $500,000 in seed funding for 100 Year Starship, a long-term, nongovernmental initiative that ensures “the capabilities for human interstellar flight exist as soon as possible, and definitely within the next 100 years.”

 Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth other than the Sun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schwartz, who authored “The Art of the Long View,” one of the seminal books on scenario planning, acknowledges that the idea behind 100 Year Starship is audacious. When he was first approached to apply scenario planning to the concept, he initially judged it extremely unlikely. “Anyone who looks at the problem has to be skeptical because it is so hard,” Schwartz said in an interview.

But the more Schwartz examined the idea, the more he realized the opportunities for achieving interstellar travel had increased in number and probability. First, mankind now had definitive evidence that earth is not the only habitable planet in the galaxy. To date, NASA’s Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, has discovered 152 new planets orbiting distant stars, including around a half-dozen in the “habitable zone.”  And billions of planets remain undiscovered. “What this means is there is someplace to go,” said Schwartz, who holds a degree in aeronautical engineering and astronautics from Rennsselaer Polytechnical Institute.


Here’s an excerpt from a fascinating article I came across on IFLSCIENCE’s website regarding a highly ambitious project called “Breakthrough Starshot.”


New Project Plans to Send a Spacecraft to Alpha Centauri in 20 Years

A new project has been announced that will attempt to launch a small spacecraft to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, and return images and data to Earth within a generation.

The ambitious proposal called Breakthrough Starshot was revealed today by billionaire Yuri Milner, Professor Stephen Hawking, and a host of other scientists and experts. The $100 million research project will seek to prove a proposed concept for interstellar travel, using a tiny satellite with a large laser-powered sail, with a plan to launch a mission to Alpha Centauri in the near future.

“Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos,” said Hawking at a press conference today. “Because we are human, and our nature is to fly.”

The proposal involves using a tiny “nanocraft,” called StarChip, which could fit between two fingers, attached to a giant and sail. An array of lasers on Earth will then be used to direct a powerful laser approaching 100 gigawatts at this sail, accelerating it to 20 percent of the speed of light in a matter of minutes. 

Stephen Hawking was one of the experts taking part in the press conference. Breakthrough Starshot

Regular spacecraft would take more than 30,000 years to traverse the 4.37 light-years (25 trillion miles) to Alpha Centauri, but this nanocraft could complete the same journey in just 20 years, returning images and data to Earth of planets in the Alpha Centauri system.

Rather than just sending one of these nanocraft, Milner and co plan to launch hundreds, or even thousands of them. But they admit there are still a number of challenges to overcome, so they are opening the project to the public to seek advice on how best to move forward. As of yet, there is no launch date planned for the mission.

“The question is, can we reach the stars, literally?” Milner said at the press conference. “And can we do it in our lifetimes?”

Aside from Milner and Hawking, the project boasts some high-profile backers including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Ann Druyan, the widow of the late Carl Sagan, who proposed the idea of a solar sail in 1976. “But we didn’t think of making one so small,” said Druyan. The program will be led by Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s AMES Research Center.

So, is Interstellar Travel possible? Well, I’ll have to leave that answer to the real experts, but it is sounding increasingly likely that we will find some way to make it happen, one way or another, and more likely sooner rather than later.

There’s been one question that’s been nagging at me about this ever since I read about Breakthrough Starshot regarding time dilation and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. If time passes more slowly for an object as it approaches the speed of light, does that mean that Starshot will make it to Alpha-Centauri in 20 years from the probe’s perspective, or from the perspective from those still on the Earth? \ If, indeed, Starshot takes 20 years from the Earth’s perspective, doesn’t that mean that from the probe’s perspective, the trip would last something like, what, a day or two?

Ohhhhh, my head’s starting to hurt. I need some Tylenol before my head explodes.

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