There are three questions you have to answer to satisfaction in order to work out the future:
- What is the answer to Fermi’s paradox?
- How do we resolve the inevitable Robot Uprising?
- Is it possible to go Faster than Light?
This is about question #3.
What this is not going to be is a deep discussion of the physics of pushing some poor dumb object faster than the absolute speed limit of the universe. Nor is this going to be about the various sub-light propulsion systems that exist in practice and theory.
This is about Faster Than Light schemes that we (mostly) made up, and how they influence your space opera or other science fictional universe.
Before we get to all of that, let us pause to consider the answer “No – it is NOT possible to exceed the speed of light in a vacuum either actually or practically.” If that is your answer, you are concocting what is called “Hard” science fiction. The answer “no” to question #3 informally defines the category.
You are in line with known physics, and there is, in truth, a lot of drama just in our own solar system and immediate stellar neighborhood. Enjoy.
But we are off to the ridiculously far horizon, and we are done with you now.
The stars you see in the sky are not the stars that are there now, but the light from stars from tens or hundreds or thousands or millions of years ago. As fast as light is [299 792 458 meters / second, just shy of 300k kilometers / second] it is still too slow to get around our vast cosmic neighborhood in any reasonable amount of time.
Not that you could anyway. By conventional known-physics propulsion, speeds nearing light speed require exponentially more energy.
Naw, if you want to get anywhere within your own lifetime, you are going to have to cheat.
It is – theoretically – possible to sneak around the light speed barrier, but you you have to hand wave over some accepted physics, and trust in some mad notions which are totally unproven.
Because the secret purpose of this article is to work out some canon for a loosely planned space opera RPG campaign, I have ordered these in easiest to most difficult for a GM to organize galactic empires around.
Wormholes in space top a lot of lists because they are a real things that exist. By wormhole we don’t mean Black Holes – which are totally real, along with their soul-crushing gravity that will stretch your already irradiated corpse out like an infinite noodle. By the time you have the tech to fly through one of those, you won’t need to.
Instead, a natural or artificially induced wormhole, an extra-dimensional tunnel connecting two otherwise distant locations in the universe, is utilized for transport. Forming the wormholes is a complex, resource-intensive endeavor generally beyond that of any individual vehicle. Because they can be stabilized, however, they are normally constructed as permanent facilities. Once in place, any vehicle is capable of using them.
To stabilize the wormhole at any reasonable size you need “exotic matter” which is theoretically possible in some versions of physics, but has not been shown to actually exist. Scientific American explains:
That’s right: mass, but negative. A ring of negative-mass material could be used to construct a fully functional and useful wormhole. Since the exotic nature of negative mass warps spacetime in a unique way, it “inflates” the entrance to the wormhole outside the boundary of the event horizon, and stabilizes the throat of the wormhole against instabilities. It’s not an intuitive result but the math checks out.
Contrary to the depictions in fiction (including mine) These things are likely spherical and would glow with a halo of radiation (which I did get right).
Also, there is the problem of location.
Does the wormhole move with the rest of the galaxy? There is no reason to assume that it would. (We have given this matter some thought.) Eventually I decided that the mechanism holding the gate open was subject to local gravitational forces, and moved with the system.
The other question is how long are you in the wormhole? Sure, it looks like it has length in the illustrations, but those are illustrations. The distance you actually travel from Actual Point A to actual Point B may be zero, or a percentage of the objective distance, or random.
Instantaneous, zero distance is the coward’s way out, but supported by the math – of simplicity. Space divided by time might equal zero.
A percentage of the distance, say 1% is likewise easy to manage, but probably not real at all.
I tend towards random. One of the supposed methods of creating a wormhole is expanding and directing of the naturally occurring ones in the quantum foam. The quantum foam is the Platonic ideal of chaos. So I’d roll two sets of dice: one for how long they spent making the journey by objective universe time, and one for how long they spent on the journey by the ship’s clock.
Consider how this screws up more than GM accounting. Bad enough trying to manage shipping logistics with this sort of chaos; try coordinating an invasion. Not only is your target going to have all their guns pointed at the gate all the time, but there is zero guarantee that any of your ships will arrive together.
Maybe the more civilized portions of the galaxy have wormholes with regular durations.
Next: Warped Drivers