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What Traveling At Light Speed Would Really Look Like

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What would Han Solo really see from the Millennium Falcon? The sight of the Millennium Falcon making the “jump to light speed” is one of the most iconic images from the Star Wars trilogy.

But University of Leicester students have calculated that – in reality – Han, Luke and Leia would not see the light from stars stretching past the ship as we are shown in the movies.

The group of fourth year MPhys students published the findings in this year’s University of Leicester’s Journal of Physics Special Topics.

The journal is published every year, and features original short papers written by students in the final year of their four-year Master of Physics degree.

The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and the aim is for them to learn about aspects of publishing and peer review.

In the films, spacecraft are equipped with hyperdrives which allow them to approach the speed of light.

An example of how the the films suggest hyperspace travel would look like.
 Credit: University of Leicester

As the hyperdrive is engaged, every star in the sky is seen to stretch before the characters’ eyes as the ship speeds through the galaxy.

The four students – Riley Connors, Katie Dexter, Joshua Argyle, and Cameron Scoular – have shown that this would not be the case.

What University of Leicester physics students suggest hyperspace travel would really look like. 
Credit: University of Leicester

There would be no sign of stars because of the Doppler effect – the same effect which causes the siren of an ambulance to become higher in pitch as it comes towards you.

Doppler blue shift is a phenomenon caused by a source of electromagnetic radiation – including visible light – moving towards an observer.

The effect means that the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation will be shortened.

From the Millennium Falcon crew’s point of view, the wavelength of the light from stars will decrease and ‘shift’ out of the visible spectrum into the X-ray range.

They would simply see a central disc of bright light as Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is shifted into the visible spectrum.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is radiation left behind from the Big Bang, and is spread across the universe fairly uniformly.

The group found after further investigation that the intense X-rays from stars would push the ship back, causing it to slow down. The pressure felt by the ship would be comparable to that felt at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Their calculations also show that Han would need to store extra amounts of energy on his ship to overcome this pressure in order to continue on his journeys.

Riley Connors, 21, from Milton Keynes, said: “If the Millennium Falcon existed and really could travel that fast, sunglasses would certainly be advisable. On top of this, the ship would need something to protect the crew from harmful X-ray radiation.”

Joshua Argyle, 22, from Leicester, added: “The resultant effects we worked out were based on Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, so while we may not be used to them in our daily lives, Han Solo and his crew should certainly understand its implications.”

Katie Dexter, 21, from Kettering, concluded: “Perhaps Disney should take the physical implications of such high speed travel into account in their forthcoming films.”

Course leader Dr Mervyn Roy, a lecturer at the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: “A lot of the papers published in the Journal are on subjects that are amusing, topical, or a bit off-the-wall. Our fourth years are nothing if not creative! But, to be a research physicist – in industry or academia – you need to show some imagination, to think outside the box, and this is certainly something that the module allows our students to practice.

“Most of our masters students hope to go on to careers in research where a lot of their time will be taken up with scientific publishing – writing and submitting papers, and writing and responding to referee reports.

“This is another area where the module really helps. Because Physics Special Topics is run exactly like a professional journal, the students get the chance to develop all the skills they will need when dealing with high profile journals later on in life.” 

You can read the full papers here:

And here:

The latest issue of the University of Leicester’s Journal of Physics Special Topics can be found here:

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    Total 11 comments
    • Louis

      Interesting article yet moot because the human body is physiologically incapable of being propelled at the speed of light. And even it it were able to be propelled at that velocity, it would still take a light-speed spacecraft over 100,000 years just to cross the Milky Way galaxy.

      But such is not the case with saved souls. They, like angels, will be able to travel anywhere in the universe at the speed of thought — i.e., instantly, with no passage of time and in perfect safety — with an endless supply of fascinating places to visit and explore.

      • Realist

        I actually thought your comment was pretty good, at the start, because of the scientific point of view, but your rather ludicrous religious rambling in the end made me think you’re just another pitiable zombie.

        Get this through your skull: angels do not exist, you’re not anymore “saved” than anyone else, your god is dead and your faith is a lie, Jesus was nothing more than con-artist and you’re criminally insane fanatic.

        The more nonsense i read from you christians, the more i hate you.

        • Louis

          If you were “realistic” you would realize that irrational hatred against Christian truth cancels out all chances for future freedom. Sane people keep their options open.

      • evopilot

        ‘realism’ interesting word don’t you think? Do you know what is ‘real’? Because if you do I would love to meet you ;)

    • Anonymous

      Traveling at the speed of light would last a very short period of time. With all the high velocity protons and neutrons flying around in interstellar space, and with your space ship traveling at that same speed but the opposite direction, you would be blasted apart like the effects of a sand blaster. Remember E=mc2? The amount of energy in you and your spacecraft at the speed of light would mean that anything you hit would release a tremendous amount of energy. Just think LHC in Cern. They are accelerating protons at near light speed to break them apart to see the sub-atomic particles. This release of energy with colliding light speed protons is ENORMOUS! Think about a collection of protons and atoms doing the same thing in interstellar space? Not a pretty picture. :shock: There are problems even with the incredibly slow micrometeorites and our space station. We wouldn’t make it to Alpha Centauri (our closest neighboring star) which is only 4.5 light years away.

    • someone who cares

      If we could achieve faster or fast as light speeds, I’m sure
      we will have probably created deflector shields or something
      similar. A warp ship theoretically new exceeds the speed of
      light, as it is in a warp bubble. The space outside is compressed
      in front and expands to the rear. At least in Star Trek and
      warp theory. Beside, don’t the major militaries of earth already
      have FTL tech?

      • Realist

        Some believed that particles called tachyons were capable for FTL speed, but it was soon proved that it is not the case.

        However, it is completely impossible for a space ship (or anything else, for that matter) to travel at FTL speed; the laws of physics would never allow it. And no, militaries do not have FTL speed tech. That is just another conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theories rarely (read: never) hold water.

        Faster than light speed will always remain in science fiction. This is also the reason why aliens have never visited Earth, because no matter how technologically advanced the species otherwise is, FTL speed is not simply possible.

    • someone who cares

      To say that FTL tech will never happen show your
      ignorance. Everybody use to think a spherical world
      was impossible too, along with so many other disproven
      impossibilities. Open your mind!

      • Mayhem

        I want to say much the same thing, Realist, but my buddy Art Schops said it best.

        “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

    • -kg-

      Umm, there is one little problem here…

      The students’ theory presupposes that stars only emit visible light, which couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, stars and other stellar objects emit a wide range of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves; some are strong emitters of radio waves.

      As the Doppler effect shifts the wavelength of visible light out of the range of vision, other frequencies would become visible–how visible, depending on the strength of those particular emissions. Visual perception of the stars would be altered, but I doubt that they would disappear entirely, leaving one with only the background radiation visible.

    • Dogwash

      noone seems to have picked up on a glaring error in the student’s definition of hyperdrive in star wars – she calls it a sub light speed drive!
      how would a drive like this be able to traverse the interstellar distances in the short times seen in the films?
      hyperdrive in star wars films obviously propels the ship concerned with a velocity that is effectively faster than light … some sort of wormhole tech possibly?

      should the ship activating hyperdrive remain in this time space continuum, may i suggest that the shields be directed forward and be on full power, to avoid being hit by the micro particles likely to obliterate it??

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