Space is big. Really, really big. It’s so big, it’s hard to imagine just how really big it is without unhinging your brain enough to really, really understand something so stupendously big that even the wildest of sci-fi nuts just don’t get how unfathomably big it is. But one scientist who is also a Star Trek fan has made a video to give us at least some idea how long it would really take to get about in space at Star Trekkian speeds. Excerpt:
O’Donoghue chose to depict the Enterprise flying away from the sun and across the solar system toward a finish line at Pluto. The spaceship starts out at warp 1 and eventually accelerates to warp 9.9, or about 2,083 times light speed.
- Warp 1, or light speed, makes the Enterprise look like it’s at a standstill over the sun. At this light-speed rate, the ship would take 5 hours and 28 minutes just to reach Pluto, which is about 3.67 billion miles (5.9 billion kilometers) away from the sun. Meanwhile, Proxima Centauri — the nearest star to our own — is a dismal four years and three months away.
- Warp 5 is about 213 times faster, making a sun-Pluto journey just 1 minute and 30 seconds long. Proxima Centauri is still a weeklong voyage.
- Warp 9.9 makes Pluto less that a 10-second trip away, and Proxima Centauri an 18-hour cruise.
This last rate of travel is thousands of times faster than the physics of our universe may ever permit.
However, traveling at a warp factor of 9.9 from one end of the Milky Way galaxy — a body of hundreds of billions of stars that may stretch 150,000 to 200,000 light-years wide, according to a recent study — to the other could take 96 years. That’s almost a decade longer than an average human life span today.
Even considering the fastest “transwarp” (or “beyond warp”) speed achieved by the Enterprise, which is about 8,323 times light speed, according to “Star Trek: The Next Generation — Technical Manual,” a transgalactic voyage would take 24 years. A transwarp voyage to Andromeda, which is the nearest galaxy to ours at about 2.5 million light-years away, would last about 300 years.
Yup. Space is big. Really, really big.
The closest any sci-fi writer has come to getting this right, at least in my reading history, was James Blish in the Cities in Flight series, originally published between 1950 and 1962. In those still-engaging stories the major cities of Earth and other worlds left their planetary homes and wandered the galaxy, using a gravitic drive Blish called a “spindizzy.” Even though, as Blish postulated, the cities under gravitic drive were separated from the general framework of the universe and moved in their own continuum, and were therefore not hampered by relativistic effects or the universal 1C speed limits, even within the galaxy travel times were so long that the inhabitants of the cities required “anti-agathic” drugs that made them, essentially, immortal, else they’d not have been able to travel such distances.
It’s a neat series, by the way, even if it is a little dated today.
Warp drives and such are neat to think about and write about; in my own dabblings in science fiction I’ve resorted to that same plot device to make my characters go gamboling and capering about the Milky Way. That kind of stuff is, after all, fun to read about and fun to write about.
But in reality, unless some kind of wormhole drive can shortcut interstellar distances instantaneously, then interstellar travel is never going to be really practical, even at transphotic speeds.
Because space is really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY, REALLY big.