Monday, April 15, 2013

Propelling Science Fiction

Almost everyone has seen, read, or at least heard about some form of science fiction involving ships in space, exploring, trading across, and fighting in the far corners of the galaxy and beyond. Almost every franchise explains how they travel through space just a little differently. Today we’ll take a look at some of the various technologies described and their more realistic counterparts (assuming they have any).

Sub-light (Subluminal) Drive Systems
From Star Wars to Halo every space faring vessel in science fiction needs a way to get from point A to point B without going so fast that they crash into things.
Chemical Rockets – an old reliable technology chemical rockets mix some type of fuel and an oxidizer together in either a solid or liquid format creating a rapidly expanding gas that is expelled through a nozzle at high pressure for thrust. The technology has been used for decades to launch rockets, satellites, and people in to space and remains a trustworthy albeit bulky and slow, propulsion method in science fiction as well
Thanks to Jodie K Cortez for the pic
Ion Engines – used in Star Wars to give TIE fighters their incredible speed, they’re actually a real technology we possess today, though obviously much more primitive. These engines are extremely fuel efficient but are actually quite slow. While higher thrust rates can be achieved, it typically results in the engine quickly destroying itself. Still newer designs have come forth recently preventing this phenomenon somewhat and allowing for greater thrust capacities from these types of engines. For more of the technical stuff check out the article at:
Impulse Engines – these engines are used in the Star Trek franchise to move ships traveling below the speed of light. They rely on a type of nuclear fusion (in this case of the fuel deuterium) to create the thrust used to propel the ship forward. While the impulse speeds we see on Star Trek are a bit out of reach for the moment, the idea of a fusion rocket drive is not. Using powerful electromagnets the device compresses a ring of lithium foil around a small bit of ionized hydrogen plasma until fusion occurs at which point the magnetic fields channel the energy out the nozzle creating a large amount of thrust. Right now the technology only works in busts but allows for much greater potential speeds to be reached than would a chemical rocket or even a nuclear fission propulsion system. This technology is also similar in many respects to that seen in Mass Effect for sub-light travel. For more specifics on how the real technology works you can check out the article at:

Faster than Light (Superluminal) Drive Systems
As with sub-light drives, any science fiction looking to leave a single star system will find it necessary to employ a faster than light drive of some kind, many varieties exist in popular science fiction
The Falcon as it enters lightspeed
Hyperdrive – the Hyperdrive works on the principle of moving a vessel into a parallel dimension that has the same physical laws but is vastly smaller and then using the sub-light drive to move through this smaller space. When the drive is deactivated you return to your own dimension in a position relative to where you left, but multiplied by the factor of compression in the parallel dimension. Because the two dimensions are so close to one another (speaking of distance rather than similarity) you still have to fly around objects in your own reality that cast a “mass shadow” into the parallel dimension. No current technology has yet been able to create this effect.
The Enterprise entering warp
Warp Drive – a fascinating take on faster than light travel, warp technology actually moves a bubble of space that the ship is in rather than the ship itself. The drive would create an effect that compressed the space in front of the ship and expanded it to the rear of the ship thus moving the ship forward in space, while it maintained no thrust at all. Believe it or not the theory is actually viable and is being researched as we speak. Though the means to accomplish this are still years ahead of us (and a couple groundbreaking discoveries distant as well) there are working models for use of this technology in the future. For more information on the specifics of current warp drive research check out the article at:
Mass Effect Field – a drive system for which the popular game was named, a mass effect field is generated by running an electrical current through a previously unknown element called Element Zero or “Eezo” for short. This causes anything affected by the field to significantly increase or decrease in mass, allowing it to become much faster or much slower as a result of its sub-light thrust. In the game drives of this type are used for travel in local star clusters, but to travel across the galaxy requires a more powerful field created by Mass Relays that can reduce the ship’s mass to a fraction of that of a photon (a light particle) and allowing them to travel much faster. Unfortunately the lack of this element zero and the alien knowledge to know how to use it means this technology doesn’t exist at this time.
Wormholes – Star Trek touches on the concept of wormholes as shortcuts through space that connect one distant area to another distant area without the need to traverse all the space in between. In the show these are typically naturally occurring and few attempts are made to create these artificially (the slipstream drive being a notable exception). Stargate on the other hand uses artificially created wormholes quite frequently to move people and even vessels across vast distances instantly. While this does require a device on both ends to be present, it does open up options for real space travel. Theories actually exist for the creation of stable artificial wormholes. Should the technology be developed it would be necessary to take the long way to a distant place only once to place a device there. After that you could seemingly go between the two points at will without the long wait (sort of like a video game fast travel system). 

While that’s by no means all the drive systems ever encountered in science fiction, these are the most notable and several of them have legitimate real life counterparts either available right now or presently in the works. While the prospect of going much further into space may be dim right now, things look pretty bright for space travel in the future, leading to much rejoicing here in the N3rd C0rn3r.