The Dream of Faster-than-Light (FTL) Travel: Dr. Harold “Sonny” White and Limitless Space
Ever since astronomers found that Earth and the Solar System are not unique in the cosmos, humanity has dreamed of the day when we might explore nearby stars and settle extrasolar planets. Unfortunately, the laws of physics impose strict limitations on how fast things can travel in our Universe, otherwise known as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Per this theory, the speed of light is constant and absolute, and objects approaching it will experience an increase in their inertial mass (thereby requiring more mass to accelerate further).
While no object can ever reach or exceed the speed of light, there may be a loophole that allows for Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel. It’s known as the Alcubierre Warp Metric, which describes a warp field that contracts spacetime in front of a spacecraft and expands it behind. This would allow the spacecraft to effectively travel faster than the speed of light while not violating Relativity or causality. For more than a decade, Dr. Harold “Sonny” White has been investigating this theory in the hopes of bringing it closer to reality.
Previously, Dr. White pursued the development of an Alcubierre Warp Drive with his colleagues at the Advanced Propulsion Physics Research Laboratory (NASA Eagleworks) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In 2020, he began working with engineers and scientists at the Limitless Space Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to education, outreach, research grants, and the development of advanced propulsion methods – which they hope will culminate in the creation of the first warp drive!
Warp Fields 101
While the idea of “warp drives” and FTL have been with us for decades, these concepts have overwhelmingly been the stuff of science fiction and pure speculation. It was not until 1994 that an actual proposal was made to explain how FTL could work within the realm of known physics. The credit for this goes to Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre, who proposed what would come to be known as the “Alcubierre Drive” as part of his Ph.D. study at Cardiff University, Wales.
In his research paper, “The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity,” he offered a possible solution to Einstein’s field equations that considered how a spacecraft could achieve apparent Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel without violating Relativity. Alcubierre concluded that it was possible, provided a field could be created with a lower energy density than the vacuum of space (aka. negative mass or “exotic matter“).
According to Alcubierre, quantum field theory allows for the existence of regions of spacetime that have negative energy densities. This is known as the Casimir Effect, which describes the attractive force between two surfaces in a vacuum. If a “ring” of negative mass could be created around a spacecraft, spacetime could theoretically be contracted in front of the ship and expanded behind. This would allow the spacecraft to effectively travel faster than the speed of light.
“By a purely local expansion of spacetime behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it, motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region is possible,” he wrote. “The resulting distortion is reminiscent of the “warp drive” of science fiction. However, just as it happens with wormholes, exotic matter will be needed in order to generate a distortion of spacetime.”
Dr. White explained the concept to Universe Today via Zoom using an everyday metaphor. Basically, he said, it’s like using (what he refers to as) a “travelator,” those horizontal conveyor belts at major airports:
“Normally, you walk along at about three miles an hour going from one gate to another. But in some locations, you have these horizontal ‘travelators,’ and you step on top of them. So you’re still walking at three miles an hour, but the belt is moving as well. Conceptually speaking, the belt is contracting space in front of you and expanding space behind you, so that it augments your apparent speed. But locally, you’re still going at the same speed.”
This way, an object would not be violating Relativity since it is merely riding a wave generated by the expansion and contraction of local spacetime. This would allow spacecraft to circumvent the problems of time dilation (where time slows down as objects approach the speed of light), the massive increase in inertial mass, and the extreme energy required to keep accelerating. Ah, but there was a snag, and it was a doozy!
According to Alcubierre’s original paper, the amount of negative mass required to achieve a warp field was beyond anything humanity could achieve. However, his work has been revisited in the nearly thirty years since he first proposed it, and some of the strict energy requirements that he outlined have been reconsidered. In essence, revised calculations have shown that the
Powerful Jets From a Black Hole are Spawning Star Clusters
Supermassive black holes are messy feeders, and when they’re gorging on too much material, they can hurl high-energy jets into the surrounding Universe. Astronomers have found one of the most powerful eruptions ever seen, emanating from a black hole 3.8 billion light-years away. The powerful jets are blowing out cavities in intergalactic space and triggering the formation of a huge chain of star clusters.
The black hole is part of a massive galaxy cluster, named SDSS J1531, which contains hundreds of individual galaxies, and all these galaxies have huge reservoirs of hot gas and dark matter. Using several telescopes for multiwavelength observations — including the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) radio telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter and submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Gemini North telescope’s Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS), and the Very Large Array (VLA) — astronomers were able to discern that two of the central galaxies were engaged in a major merger. The merger activated the supermassive black hole in the center of one of the large galaxies, which produced an extremely powerful jet. As the jet moved through space, it pushed the surrounding hot gas away from the black hole, creating a gigantic cavity.
The merger and the resulting jets from the black hole created a remarkable and stunning chain of 19 young stellar superclusters wound the two galaxies like a string of beads.
In their paper, the astronomers said the dynamic environment of SDSS J1531 offers an excellent laboratory to study the interplay between mergers, and their multiwavelength studies allowed them to uncover the origin and evolution of the “beads on a string” star formation complex.
“We’ve reconstructed a likely sequence of events in this cluster that occurred over a vast range of distances and times,” said co-author Grant Tremblay, from the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics CfA). “It began with the black hole a tiny fraction of a light-year across forming a cavity almost 500,000 light-years wide. This single event set in motion the formation of the young star clusters nearly 200 million years later, each a few thousand light-years across.”
A labeled view of the multiwavelength Image of SDSS J1531. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/O. Omoruyi et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/G. Tremblay et al.; Radio: ASTRON/LOFAR; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk.
Chandra’s X-ray vision allowed the scientists to see wing-shaped emissions in bright X-rays, which traced dense gas near the center of SDSS J1531. The said these wings make up the edge of the cavity, and then LOFAR revealed radio waves from the remains of the jet’s energetic particles filling in the giant cavity. Together, these data provide compelling evidence of an ancient, massive explosion.
Osase Omoruyi, also from CfA who led the study, compared finding this cavity to unearthing a buried fossil.
“We are already looking at this system as it existed four billion years ago, not long after the Earth formed,” she said. “This ancient cavity, a fossil of the black hole’s effect on the host galaxy and its surroundings, tells us about a key event that happened nearly 200 million years earlier in the cluster’s history.”
This Hubble Space Telescope image from 2014 shows two galaxies (yellow, center) from the cluster SDSS J1531 found to be merging into one and a “chain” of young stellar super-clusters are seen winding around the galaxies’ nuclei. The galaxies are surrounded by an egg-shaped blue ring caused by the immense gravity of the cluster bending light from other galaxies beyond it. Credit: NASA/ESA/Grant Tremblay
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Finally! Blue Origin’s New Glenn Goes Vertical on the Launch Pad
If you think about space travel and the means of escaping the confines of the Earth then most people, currently, are likely to think about the new Artemis project and the Space Launch System. That’s not the only new development though, Blue Origin have been working on their New Glenn rocket and finally we have got a glimpse of their new offering. The rocket was finally rolled onto the launch pad at Cape Canaveral for testing to commence and we may even see a launch later this year.
Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. It is American aerospace manufacturer based in Washington, USA and specialises in producing rocket engines for the Vulcan rocket and manufactures satellites, spacecraft and a variety of space based tech. Securing the deal to become the second provider of the Lunar lander for Artemis project, Blue Origin has most certainly become a major player in the space industry.
Their latest announcement came with the incredible sight of the New Glenn vehicle rolling out onto Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral. This was the first glimpse the world got of their new advanced heavy-lift vehicle which promises to support a number of different commercial customer missions and NASA’s Artemis program to get humans back to the Moon.
Space lovers will perhaps recognise the name Glenn from the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn. It stands an impressive 98m tall (only about 12m shorter than Saturn V used by the Apollo astronauts). It has an impressive 7m payload bay which is double the volume of most commercial launch capabilities available today. I don’t know about you but I struggle to visualise what that means but to give it context, Blue Origin state that it could accommodate three school busses!
Apollo 11 launch using the Saturn V rocket
The first stage, like the Falcon rockets, are reusable and designed to be used for at least 25 launches. They will land on a sea-based platform almost 1,000km downrange from the launch site. As with the Falcon systems, the reusability of the first stage helps to keep costs per launch down.
Before the New Glenn could be lifted up onto the pad the journey started toward the end of 2023 when the first stage module was transported to the Integration Facility 15km away. The facility allowed the modules to be assembled in preparation for installing on the launch pad. Now the rocket is vertical, the coming weeks will see a series of tests from loading the cryogenic fuel into the seven BE-4 engines. These are the most powerful liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas engines developed since Saturn V’s F1 engines. They will test pressure control and launch and ground systems in preparation for its first launch later this year.
Blue Origin are rather confident these tests will be a success though as they are already manufacturing several New Glenn vehicles with a full set of customers queueing up to use them. They include NASA, Project Kuiper (another global internet project to launch over 3,000 satellites into low Earth orbit), Telesat, Eutelsat and the US Space Force for National Security Space Launch programs.
Source : Blue Origin Debuts New Glenn on Our Launch Pad
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Can We Survive in Space? It Might Depend on How Our Gut Microbiome Adapts
For over a century, people have dreamed of the day when humanity (as a species) would venture into space. In recent decades, that dream has moved much closer to realization, thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry (NewSpace), renewed interest in space exploration, and long-term plans to establish habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), on the lunar surface, and Mars. Based on the progression, it is clear that going to space exploration will not be reserved for astronauts and government space agencies for much longer.
But before the “Great Migration” can begin, there are a lot of questions that need to be addressed. Namely, how will prolonged exposure to microgravity and space radiation affect human health? These include the well-studied aspects of muscle and bone density loss and how time in space can impact our organ function and cardiovascular and psychological health. In a recent study, an international team of scientists considered an often-overlooked aspect of human health: our microbiome. In short, how will time in space affect our gut bacteria, which is crucial to our well-being?
The team consisted of biomedical researchers from the Ionizing and Non-ionizing Radiation Protection Research Center (INIRPRC) at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (SUMS), the Lebanese International University, the International University of Beirut, the MVLS College at The University of Glasgow, the Center for Applied Mathematics and Bioinformatics (CAMB) at Gulf University in Kuwait, the Nuclear Physics Institute (NPI) of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the Technische Universität Wien Atominstitut in Vienna. The paper that describes their findings recently appeared in Frontiers of Microbiology.
Artist’s impression of the Space Launch System (SLS) taking off. Credit: NASA
A microbiome is the collection of all microbes that live on and within our bodies, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their respective genes. These microbes are key to how our body interacts with the surrounding environment since they can affect how we respond to the presence of foreign bodies and substances. In particular, some microbes alter foreign bodies in ways that make them more harmful, while others act as a buffer that mitigates the effects of toxins. As they note in their study, the microbiota of astronauts will encounter elevated stress from microgravity and space radiation, including Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR).
Cosmic rays are a high-energy form of radiation that consists primarily of protons and atomic nuclei stripped of their electrons that have been accelerated to close to the speed of light. When these rays are generated from elements heavier than hydrogen or helium, their high-energy nuclei components are known as HZE ions, which are particularly hazardous. When these impact our atmosphere or protective shielding aboard spacecraft or the International Space Station (ISS), they result in showers of secondary particles.
While Earth’s protective magnetosphere and atmosphere prevent most of these particles from reaching the surface, astronauts in space are exposed to them regularly. As the authors noted, previous research has shown how this exposure could potentially enhance astronaut resilience to radiation, a process known as radio-adaptation. However, they also noted that the extent to which astronauts adapted varied from one astronaut to the next, with some experiencing adverse biological effects before embarking on a deep space mission.
For this reason, they recommend conducting further research to determine the risks associated with the space environment, as it mostly consists of protons, which astronauts will be exposed to before encountering HZE particles. Third, NASA’s Multi-Mission Model suggests that an astronaut’s first mission can be an adapting dose. However, the team notes that current research suggests that a second spaceflight does not necessarily increase the chances of genetic abnormalities as much as expected. This could mean that the
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