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Interstellar Travel

Almost two hundred years after the establishment of the first colony on Mars, humanity was still confined to their own planetary system. Even with the nearly limitless power of dark matter reactors there was one seemingly insurmountable obstacle to colonizing the stars —  the speed of light. Not only was this proving to be a literal universal speed limit, it was turning out to be more difficult than anyone had ever anticipated to even approach the speed of light. By 2350 the fastest speed achieved using fusion pulse drive was a paltry 5% cee — it wasn’t that the drive systems lacked the power but rather that as they passed this mark they began encountering violent, and all too often catastrophic stresses.

Initially this was blamed on the interplanetary medium. Space is not empty; even in the vast blackness between stars there are minute particles and radiation, called the intersellar medium. Within the influence of a star system this medium is made denser by the addition of plasma from the stellar wind, and is known as the interplanetary medium. It had always been theorized that a vessel traveling fast enough could be damaged or even destroyed by the IPM or ISM, but the math all said it shouldn’t be a problem until at least 10% cee. The problem was compounded once further experimentation revealed that it was not resistance at the bow of a vessel that prevented it from accelerating past 5% light speed, but rather interference at the stern that degraded the efficiency of the drive system.

While most of the astrophysics community was wracking its brain trying to figure this out, Dr. Gretchen Moeller theorized that the problem had nothing to do with the either medium, but rather something unknown, analogous to the sound barrier that had to be overcome before aircraft could travel at supersonic speeds . At 35 Dr. Moeller was a virtual newcomer to the field, and her ‘Moeller Barrier’ was largely dismissed as nonsense.

Rather than becoming discouraged, Dr. Moeller set out to prove her theory, and with the help of some forward thinking colleagues in 2365 she did just that, and in the process she also proved the existence of extradimensional space, more commonly called hyperspace.

The universe as we know it exists in normal space, or nspace. Dr. Moeller’s experiments proved conclusively that nspace exists atop another spatial dimension, hyperspace, and these two dimensions are separated by a thin transitional boundary. As an analogy, imagine a glass of water. The air above the glass represents nspace, and the water itself hyperspace. If you slowly add water to the glass, it can be filled to a point where the water actually forms a curved surface that extends above the rim of the glass due to surface tension. In similar fashion, the dimensional tension between nspace and hyperspace forms what became known as the Moeller Layer.

Until this time, nothing had even approached a significant fraction of the speed of light. A comet at perihelion moves at roughly 70 kilometers per second, around .02% cee. The Milky Way Galaxy is moving at roughly 300 kilometers per second, which is only .1% cee. At 5% cee a spacecraft is traveling almost 15,000 kilometers per second, and at this velocity it begins to encounter resistance from the Moeller Layer. Once this was understood, engineers began to experiment with different hull designs in the hopes of lessening this resistance, but to no avail. Since the Layer wasn’t a ‘physical’ dimension, the shape of the vessel had nothing to do with the problem. The difficulty was similar to trying to design a two dimensional object to operate more efficiently in three dimensions — it simply isn’t possible because the object in question lacks a necessary dimension. What was needed was an extradimensional solution.

Dr. Moeller continued to work on her research, and later theorized that it should be possible for a vessel to project a field of concentrated tachyons ahead of it; since tachyons travel faster than light this would act as an artificial ‘bow breaker’, disrupting the Layer and essentially creating a tear drop shaped bubble around it, allowing a vessel to achieve higher velocities in nspace. Space ships were already beginning to use dark matter reactors as power sources, and dark matter is a natural source of tachyons. In the earliest reactors these tachyon emissions were simply lost, passing through the reactor vessel harmlessly. The addition of a thin layer of neutronium shielding allowed the tachyons to be contained and channeled through a flow regulator and then directed ahead of the vessel. Five years after Dr. Moeller published her findings, a test vessel utilizing Moeller’s tachyon bow breaker reached a stable speed of 9% cee.

Dr. Moeller wasn’t content to rest on her monumental achievement. Twenty-five years after her discovery, she published another historic paper on the properties of the Moeller Layer (she refused to call it that, preferring to use Hyper-dimensional Transition Layer). Her research showed that the Layer was significantly different from nspace, and in a fantastically exciting way. Just as sound moves faster in water than in air, Dr. Moeller demonstrated that light moved faster within the Layer – 5000 times faster – than it does in normal space. If a vessel could enter the Layer, it should be able to travel much faster than light relative to normal space. For this discovery, heralded as the key to faster-than-light travel, Dr. Moeller was awarded her second Nobel Prize.

If the Moeller Layer was indeed the key to FTL travel, the lock into which it fit was still elusive. In order to take advantage of the unique properties of the Layer it was first necessary for a vessel to enter it and then return to normal space upon reaching its destination, and no one had the faintest notion of how that might be accomplished. A key piece to the puzzle fell into place in 2406, when Dr. Isaiah Kerensky perfected his Synchrotron Worm Drive. Kerensky’s work was a natural off-shoot of Moeller’s, for just as the tachyon particles emitted by a ship’s dark matter reactor core were utilized to create the bow breaker, Kerensky developed a way to use them as a means of propulsion.

The Kerensky Drive, or K-Drive, directs a stream of tachyons through a powerful electromagnetic field generated by a series of toroidal tokamak particle accelerators, creating a rotating field of ultra-relativistic particles and synchrotron radiation behind the ship, like the threads on a screw or worm gear, which acts like the propeller in water, pushing against the Layer and propelling the ship forward. Because the tachyons are a normal byproduct of the core of a dark matter reactor, and that core can provide power for years before it has to be replaced, a K-Drive equipped vessel has effectively unlimited range. The threads of the relativistic screw have a pitch which can be adjusted to switch from forward to reverse, eliminating the need to ‘turnover’ for deceleration.

Two obstacles still remained; entering the Layer and the aforementioned interstellar medium. With Dr. Moeller’s bow breaker and Kerensky’s worm drive, vessels were now able to reach speeds at which the ISM posed a very real danger. This barrier was surmounted in 2430 when Dr. Michio Kakuro expanded upon Dr. Moeller’s bow breaker technology, generating a coherent tachyon deflector screen capable of enveloping a vessel and protecting it from both the ISM and the pressure of the Layer. Kakuro’s deflector screen didn’t eliminate the resistance of the Layer, but rather redirected it, so the Layer still represented a barrier to true relativistic speeds in nspace. The maximum sustainable speed by a starship did begin to inch upward,however, and by 2450 was approaching 25% light speed.

In 2475, at the age of 103, Dr. Kakura was aboard the Argonaut, the test vessel for the latest incarnation of his deflector generator, overseeing the calibration of the unit through a variety of tests. On May 11th, during her fifth trial run, Argonaut reached a velocity of .25 cee — and then she vanished. The vessels monitoring the test frantically scanned the area for debris but there was no indication that the ship had exploded, she had simply disappeared.

For over two hours the observers poured over the telemetry data and continued to search the test range for the slightest clue as to the fate of the Argonaut. Then they received a very faint transmission from the missing vessel, informing them that all aboard were safe. It took another hour for the ship to return to the test range, and once there the truth behind her vanishing act was revealed.

As Dr. Kakura and his team were adjusting the output of the deflector generator, the tachyon density within the field had reached a point which, combined with the disturbance created by the ship’s velocity, had penetrated the barrier between nspace and the Moeller Layer, and Argonaut had translated into the Layer. Fail-safes had cut in almost immediately, cutting the drive and lowering the output to the deflector, and five seconds after it entered the Moeller Layer the vessel had translated back into nspace. But in those five seconds, Argonaut had traveled more than five-hundred-million kilometers, a velocity equivalent to three-hundred-fifty times the speed-of-light!

Dr. Kakura continued to be instrumental in the advancement of FTL technology until his death on August 23rd, 2522 — one day after news reached Earth of the successful landing of the first interstellar colonists on Epsilon Eridani C. The path to the stars was wide open, and there was no stopping mankind now.

Current drive technology permits ships in nspace to reach a maximum velocity of .35 cee, with translation into the Layer possible at any speed between 25-35% of light speed. This appears to be a hard limit; while deflector technology theoretically would protect a ship from the ISM at speeds approaching 75% of light, at .35 cee the barrier membrane between normal space and the Layer simply collapses and the ship enters the Layer.

The tachyon field formed by a ship’s FTL generator creates a bubble of normal space around the vessel, in effect a pocket universe. This causes a localized distortion of nspace around the vessel, a wave of sorts with a peak of normal space behind the vessel, dipping down to a valley that touches the upper reaches of the Layer. This is why spacers commonly refer to FTL travel as ‘surfing the Layer’.

Once in the Layer, speeds in excess of 1500 times the speed of light are attainable with current systems. The exact composition of the Moeller Layer is still poorly understood, largely because it is impossible to obtain samples for analysis. Unlike nspace, there is resistance to motion within the Layer, so once a vessel must maintain acceleration to keep moving. Like absolute velocity, acceleration rates are much higher than those possible in normal space. With inertial dampeners starships are able to accelerate and decelerate at rates in excess of 500 gravities in normal space, but in the Layer this is increased to over two million gravities. This is possible because the ship itself exists within its own ‘pocket universe’ inside the tachyon field created by its FTL generator. As the drive system thrusts against the stern portion of this bubble it creates a higher pressure against the Layer outside the bubble, but the ship itself does not experience any increased acceleration as it is carried along inside the field.

Acceleration and deceleration are critical aspects of translation into and out of the Layer. It is common practice for a ship to enter the Layer under full acceleration; its FTL field protects the crew from the sudden increase in acceleration once the boundary is crossed. When translating back into nspace, however, the reverse is true. A vessel must first decelerate to at least .35 cee relative to normal space before translating out of the Layer, and it must be at zero acceleration when it makes translation. If a ship leaves the Layer and re-enters normal space under even slight acceleration, the sudden change could be catastrophic.

4 comments to Interstellar Travel

  • Terry

    Fascinating, as a famous Vulcan once said.

    It sounded a little too much like technobabble now and then but the concepts made some sense. I saw a recent science article that talked about the plausibility of warp fields in the Star Trek universe and your ideas sound similar.

    I wonder if it’s necessary to actually leave nspace to travel faster than light. Couldn’t it be possible to mask the gravity of a ship and allow it to travel as a massless particle? I notice that in Star Trek, you can still “see” the stars on the view screen. They appear smeared but they’re still visible as if the ship was in nspace.

  • Renee M

    Terry(?) I like the physics of this universe much more than that of Honor Harrington. In Weber’s, ships, missiles, etc. accelerate to and travel at high fractions of c with no apparent relativistic effects. Altho it’s handy for the stories, I cringe when they have “gravity waves” ftl. I also like your hyperspace. The boundary layer is a logical conjecture as is a ship in a bubble of nspace when traveling in hyperspace. I might not understand fully, but it seems that the Moeller Layer is sort of thick in nspace dimentions. All the ftl travel sounds as if it takes place “in” this boundary layer. Maybe I just have to think more deeply on “where” the hyperdimentions point or go.

    If this is a “brane” multiverse, then a whole other nspace universe is next to ours and only a small (?) hyperdistance away. OK, that doesn’t work! I will have to think more originally and outside of today’s box!

  • Renee M

    I mean Scott (not Terry). Damn Alzheimer’s; it’s so embarrassing!

  • Thanks for the comment, Renee; I think you understand what I’m trying to convey pretty well. Yes, there are other universes out there in hyperspace, but that “small” hyperdistance is very relative, because hyperspace appears to be essentially infinite. It is possible for a ship to punch right through the Moeller Layer and enter hyperspace, but no ship that has done so has ever been seen again.

    There is a way to safely travel through hyperspace … but that explanation will have to wait!

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