March 2, 2011

What To Do on an Interstellar Voyage: Subluminal Science

No doubt about it. Exoplanets have boosted humanity’s interest in interstellar travel. New discoveries got everyone thinking which exoplanets are good targets for the maiden voyage of the first exonauts.

Recently, DARPA and NASA set up a 100-Year Starship study. And the Tau Zero Foundation has renewed their efforts to carry us to the stars.

These initiatives are great. But now we need something to augment with these lofty plans. Even this early, we need to outline projects that future spacefarers must do during their maiden voyage. Let’s write up a ‘to do’ list to keep them busy. Because nobody wants to be nagged with “Are we there, yet?” especially on an interstellar journey.

That list would be huge, but it's narrowed down because of the unique characteristic of that starship--it’s traveling at a fraction of the speed of light! And that is how I got into thinking what science research I would do if I were on that starship.

I dub it “Subluminal Science”, a field of study which simply deals with the effects of relativistic speeds, whose experiments can only be done aboard an interstellar vessel traveling at some fraction of the speed of light. Subluminal, pertains to that step below Superluminal, or faster-than-light (FTL). Since matter cannot reach the speed of light, we’ll just explore subluminal for now. (if we upgraded to an Alcubierre drive instead, then we’d be doing Superluminal research. But that’s for another story)

The universe will ‘seem’ different from the vantage point of a moving or accelerating observer. And that makes it worthy of some curious thought. What do things look like when you're moving at even a small fraction, 0.1c of the speed of light? Can you imagine if we brought a portable version of the LHC on our subluminal starship? What manner of atom-smashing is possible with that scenario?

I know. Asking these questions is very silly. Such is the sacrifice i must bear to urge all of us to do some Gendanken experiments. What research are you going to do if you were given a chance to ride on that starship?

Here are some more prompts to give you an idea. Let me count the ways...

Let Theoretical physicists start thinking about physics at subluminal velocities. Would it be easier to detect gravitational waves if you were moving subluminally?

Let Neuroscientists start making predictions about the effects of subluminal speeds on cognition. I mean, really, what is the speed of thought?

Let Information Engineers start designing protocols for communicating with starships traveling at some fraction of the speed of light. What is the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of WiFi aboard that ship, anyways?

Let Cosmologists gauge the expansion of the universe. Would riding on the 100-Year Starship allow a more accurate measurement of the expansion of the universe? Would you be able to finally detect Dark Matter from that ship?

Let Quantum Physicists theorize how Quantum Computers would behave at subluminal speeds. Does entanglement still hold true when one of the pair is travelling at subluminal speeds?

Let Astronomers start dreaming up techniques that can be accomplished only when your telescope is moving so fast. Yes, you can still do planet-hunting from a moving platform, but how? Parallax methods? One thing is for sure: You’ll find new planets (and refine data on those previously known) from a different vantage point which would not have been possible solely from earth.

Oh the possibilities are endless! But you get the point, right? Those are just starter ideas behind the idea of Subluminal Science research. It can and must be applied to an unmanned probe too, for starters.

Don’t wait for DARPA or NASA. Don’t wait for Tau Zero or BIS to finish building that interstellar ship. Don’t wait for that day when your great great grandchildren zooms to Gliese and then realizes, “Hey, this trip is boring! What are we supposed to do now?”

Go ahead and write up that idea now. What experiments would you like your great grandkids to do on that starship? Let’s plan ahead to make that interstellar journey an exciting trip for our exoplanetary descendants!