I am going to throw my support behind scientifically plausible magitech. These are tricks like Krasnikov tubes, Alcubierre/Van-der-Broeck warp drives, and traversable wormholes. General relativity allows a number of solutions of getting from here to there faster than a photon chugging along through flat space-time, and some of these solutions can even be accomplished with less than Jupiter masses.
The fun thing about scientifically plausible magitech is that it leads you in all sorts of unexpected directions. You get interesting restrictions on what is possible and often your setting takes delightful unexpected twists when you consider the implications. Sometimes, you end up having to ditch cool ideas — much like ditching space fighters. For example, why take a rocket ship through a wormhole to Zeta Reticuli rather than getting on a tram through the Spokane wormhole gate directly to Port Kato, Zeta Reticuli Prime?
I'll haul out my PhD in physics and the work I've done in general relativity to mention that wormholes, warp drives, and Krasnikov tubes are viable solutions of Einstein's equations of general relativity. They require some rather odd conditions, namely regions of space-time with negative energy densities. We know this is not unphysical, since there are odd cases we know or strongly suspect exist with negative energy densities (black hole event horizons, the Casimir effect between nearby conducting surfaces). The fun stuff tends to require an awful lot of negative energy, but the amount needed tends to keep getting smaller with more research.
A few highlights of the various space-warping methods:
Wormholes are shortcuts through space-time. One end of a wormhole connects on another end, and going through takes you somewhere else in space and time. Wormholes are two way — you can go back again, and going through a wormhole may (or may not) involve strong tides but is otherwise just like traveling through any other region of space (none of this shimmery barrier like you see in StarGate).
It is strongly suspected, but not yet proven, that a wormhole cannot take you farther back in time than it would take for a light signal to propagate from where you are going to where you left — in otherwords, wormholes can be used for FTL but not time travel (in relativity jargon, they only connect space-like intervals). Trying to move a wormhole around so as to make a time machine is thought to result in the destruction of the wormhole (or possibly just large forces that prevent the wormhole from entering into configurations that let you travel into your own past).
All conserved quantities are conserved locally at wormholes — if a wormhole end has a given mass, pushing something with extra mass through the wormhole from that end will add its mass to the wormhole end, while if something comes out of that end, its mass will be subtracted from that end of the wormhole. The same goes for electric charge and (in a vector sense) momentum. If wormholes cannot have negative mass, this limits the amount of stuff you can send one-way through a wormhole before needing to send more mass back the other way.
Many Sci Fi authors posit wormholes orbiting around stars in the vacuum of space, but there is no real reason I can think of not to have them located some place more convenient, such as in the aforementioned Spokane, WA. You would probably want to put them in an airlock to keep all the air from whooshing through from high pressure to low, and if you have more than one wormhole you will need to be careful that that there are no round trips you can take that bring you back into your own past (because if there was, some wormhole leg of that trip would collapse to prevent this).
Warp drives let you take a spacecraft and warp space-time around it so that a bubble of space-time around the spacecraft surfs through space-time at an apparent superluminal rate. The spacecraft, however, is at rest inside its bubble and is not actually moving.
The most plausible form yet devised is the Alcubierre/Van-der-Broek geometry, which pinches the spacecraft off into a pocket universe connected by a microscopic wormhole to our universe through a region smaller in volume than a proton. Then you warp the microscopic wormhole end rather than the huge volume of the entire spacecraft. Clearly, the spacecraft would be blind while warping.
There are unresolved issues with a warp drive — when moving at super-luminal speeds you get a singularity "bow shock wave" at the front of the bubble, which may not be physical (we are not sure yet). Also, when going super-luminal, the spacecraft is causally disconnected from the rest of the universe, so it could not maneuver while warping, only travel on a pre-planned course. These last two limitations go away if you only use the warp drive for sub-luminal journeys (making a warp drive a sort of reactionless drive). The conservation laws still hold — if you warp close to a planet, the planet's gravity will pull on the warping craft and change its velocity, building up momentum toward the planet.
Krasnikov tubes are not well researched yet, but they seem to work. You prepare a path through space-time along which material objects can move back and forth at apparent super-luminal speeds. This is sort of like an interstellar rail line.
Note that none of these tricks allow local faster than light motion through space-time — you only seem to move faster than light to distant observers.
I will mention that we already know of at least two cases which are experimentally verified as having negative energy density — the Casimir vacuum between conductive surfaces and so called "squeezed states". If black holes exist, then the event horizon of a black hole will also have a negative energy density.
One nice thing about wormholes is that they let you adventure in a universe filled with interesting aliens that are naturally neither so god-like in their technology that they completely out-class you nor mere stone-age primitives.
Consider — suppose we humans invent a way to split off a pair of connected wormhole mouths from the vacuum and keep them open. We can use them for interstellar transport by charging up one of the mouths and putting it in a particle accelerator to shoot it out toward an interesting looking star at ultrarelativistic speeds (make sure to discharge it in flight, or it may be deflected by interstellar magnetic fields). When it reaches the destination star, slow it down by shining an intense laser through it and using the light beam as a photon rocket. Once you stop, gobble up some mass so you can send things through.
Now, the thing about wormholes is they do not connect points in space, they connect events in space-time. That ultrarelativistic wormhole you shot out will have a very high time dilation while it is in motion. From the point of view of the wormhole mouth in motion, it might only take a month to make a 100 light year journey due to time dilation. Since the wormhole mouth back home is connected to the wormhole mouth in transit both in space and time, the people back home only need to wait one month before they can look through the wormhole and see the virgin star system, ripe for colonization. We'll call our new conquest Terra Nova.
Of course, in our reference frame that is not looking through the wormhole, it takes somewhat over 100 years for the wormhole mouth to travel those 100 light years (for the listed time dilation, it takes 100 years, 18 minutes). This means the wormhole is a time machine that takes you (roughly) 99 years, 11 months into the future if you go from Earth to Terra Nova, or 99 years, 11 months into the past if you go from Terra Nova back to Earth.
Now there are certain details we will need to follow if we have wormholes to many star systems, to prevent the creation of time machines (which will probably break the wormholes involved before we can make the time machines). The main idea, though, is that an expansion front of earth civilization sweeps through space at almost the speed of light — and due to time dilation, as the expansion front overtakes regions of space, they are linked back to human civilization at a time (and thus level of technological advancement) not too far beyond what is needed to make wormholes.
Now, suppose there is another technological civilization in a distant galaxy. Maybe they have not even evolved by the time we start sending out wormholes (in some galaxy centered reference frame). Maybe (in that galaxy centered reference frame) they were ancient long before our distant ape-like ancestors came out of the jungles to gaze across the African savanna. Nevertheless, due to time dilation effects of wormhole transport, when our expansion front meets their expansion front, we will both have only recently invented wormholes (well, maybe within a few hundreds of years — but not millions of years).
Perhaps a timeline would help. I will use GMT to refer to the Greenwich Mean Time coordinate frame. Keep in mind that the actual time coordinate depends on your frame of reference.
Jan 1, 00:00:00.00 2050 AD GMT
Mankind launches a wormhole mouth toward Nova Terra. The other mouth remains on earth. Nova Terra is 100 light years distant from earth. The launched wormhole mouth has a time dilation factor of 1200 — for every second of proper time experienced by the mouth, 1200 seconds pass in the GMT coordinate frame. To make this explicit, a motor is placed inside the wormhole. The motor turns a drive shaft that connects to an analog clock face on each side of the wormhole. Since the shaft turns at the same rate for both clock faces, anyone looking through the wormhole sees the same time on both the clock face on Earth and the clock face on the other side of the wormhole. The clock drives the shaft at a rate such that the clock faces turn at one second mark per second of proper time. A time dilation factor of 1200 corresponds to a speed of 0.999999653 c.
Jan 1, 00:18:15.75 2150 AD GMT
The wormhole mouth arrives at Terra Nova. 100 years, 18 minutes and 15.75 seconds have passed in the reference frame at rest with respect to Earth. This is 3,155,761,095.75 seconds. Due to time dilation, the projected wormhole mouth experiences only 1/1200 of this of its own proper time (equivalently, time in its own inertial coordinate frame). This means the proper time of the projected wormhole mouth is 2,629,800.91 seconds, or 30 days, 10 hours, 30 minutes, and 0.91 seconds. Anyone who had been drifting along with the wormhole mouth would have experienced a passage of time of 30 d, 10 h, 30 m, 0.91 s. If she were watching the clock, she would have seen it tick off that amount of time. Since the clocks on both sides of the wormhole are ticking along at the same rate from the point of view of someone looking through the wormhole, anyone sitting back on earth watching the clock would have seen it tick off 30 d, 10 h, 30 m, 0.91 s. This means that 30 d etc after launching the wormhole, people on earth experience the wormhole's arrival as viewed through the wormhole. This then means —
Jan 30, 10:30:00.91 2050 AD GMT
People on Earth experience the arrival of the Terra Nova wormhole. They can start sending explorers and colonists through.
Of course, our time-line is a bit out of order. Putting it in order, we have
Jan 1, 00:00:00.00 2050 AD GMT — wormhole launched
Jan 30, 10:30:00.91 2050 AD GMT — Earth wormhole mouth experiences arrival of Terra Nova mouth.
Jan 1, 00:18:15.75 2150 AD GMT — Terra Nova mouth arrives.
An explorer going through the wormhole the moment it arrives would go from a time coordinate of Jan 30, 10:30:00.91 2050 AD GMT to a time coordinate of Jan 1, 00:18:15.75 2150 AD GMT. This is a jump forward in time of 99 y, 334 d, 19 h, 48 m, 14.84 s. If one of the little green native inhabitants of Terra Nova were to jump through the wormhole the moment it arrives, he would go from a time coordinate of Jan 1, 00:18:15.75 2150 AD GMT to a time coordinate of Jan 30, 10:30:00.91 2050 AD GMT, a jump backwards in the time coordinate of 99 y, 334 d, 19 h, 48 m, 14.84 s.
First, keep in mind that a wormhole is, by its nature, a general relativistic object. The reference frames in flat spacetime from special relativity should not be expected to hold in the highly curved spacetime of a wormhole. I've tried, as much as possible, to avoid the curvature of the wormhole and use only observers located in spacetime that is mostly flat (i.e., on one side of the wormhole or the other) so as to be able to use special relativity to analyze the motion. However, you do need a coordinate patch at the wormhole — although spacetime across the wormhole is continuous, the specific coordinates that you use in flat spacetime will become discontinuous across the wormhole (alternately, you can choose continuous coordinates across the wormhole, but then you need to patch your coordinates together someplace else, creating a discontinuity in the coordinate representation between Earth and Terra Nova.
The key point is that the wormhole mouth en route to Terra Nova is both at rest with respect to Earth (through the wormhole) AND moving at relativistic speeds with respect to Earth (through flat spacetime). Likewise Earth is both at rest with respect to Terra Nova (through flat spacetime) AND moving at relativistic speeds with respect to Terra Nova (through the wormhole). The perceived speed is path dependent in this particular spacetime geometry.
Note that for just one wormhole causality is not broken. At Terra Nova, you can go back in time by 99 years, 11 months by going through the wormhole to Earth. However, you can never get back to Terra Nova before you started. If you go back through the wormhole, you will go forward in time by 99 years, 11 months, so when you add in however long you spent on Earth, you get back after you left. If you try to go back to Terra Nova the long way through flat spacetime, it will take at least 100 years since Terra Nova is 100 light years away — even if you sent yourself a lasercom signal to Terra Nova as soon as you got to earth, the message would not arrive until a month after you left. We maintain time ordering, and causes always precede their effects.
Out of convenience, it is often useful to consider a specific kind of wormhole called a Visser wormhole (after its inventor, Matt Visser). A Visser wormhole is essentially supported by a "cage" or "circle" of negative energy stuff, and paths through the wormhole that do not touch the cage only go through flat spacetime. Thus, any trip through a Visser wormhole is no different from traveling through flat spacetime. Visser wormholes are valid solutions of Einstein's equation for the geometry of spacetime in general relativity. This makes them convenient for analyzing cases like this — the flat spacetime through the wormhole no more impedes the flow of matter or information than any other region of flat spacetime, like the spacetime between my library and my living room.
The ends of wormholes follow the same paths that any object would. They have mass, and if you exert a force on them they accelerate in accordance with Newton's second law. If you have one in a star system, it will follow a Keplerian orbit around that star just as would any bit of inert matter. If you keep your wormhole on a planet, you will need to support it against gravity (perhaps just resting on the ground will do this, we do not know). Each end moves independently on its own trajectory, regardless of what the other end is doing. The main complication is that a wormhole absorbs the momentum as well as the mass of anything going through, and gives up the momentum as well as mass of anything coming out. Thus, traffic through a wormhole will generate forces that can alter its trajectory.
All of the wormhole geometries I am familiar with don't have the ends moving with respect to each other through the wormhole, as much as they might move with respect to each other through flat space-time. That is, look through the wormhole and the other end is a constant distance away, always. Look at the other end through flat space-time through a telescope and you might see the other end moving quite a bit.
You can see how a wormhole is useful for travel by considering our previous example — one end on Earth and one on Terra Nova. I am on Earth and I want to visit Terra Nova. I step into the wormhole end on Earth, jump across the wormhole tunnel (we'll make this one have a short tunnel, just because we want to, but you can have a long tunnel, or just a vanishingly thin portal if you prefer), and you will be on Terra Nova, 100 light years away. When you get bored of life on the frontier, you can go back to the wormhole, jump through, and be back on Earth. So long as the wormhole does not take you further backward or forward in time than 100 years, it is impossible to violate causality (we say that they have a space-like separation). So long as the separation is space-like, it is thought that the wormhole mouths exert no forces on each other, and the wormhole is stable.
However, what happens if Terra Nova orbits a heavier star than Earth, so it is orbiting faster and deeper in a gravity well. It is also farther into the galaxy's gravity well. Uh oh! The Terra Nova end of the wormhole is continuing to experience extra time dilation not felt by the Earth end. Eventually, more than 100 years of time lag will build up. Perhaps Terra Nova's sun (and thus Terra Nova itself) is drifting toward Earth, so the distance is getting closer. As soon as the time lag (in years) is more than the distance (in light years), you can use the wormhole to go back in time and then send a lasercom signal to yourself before you left. (Terminology: when the time lag is exactly equal to the distance, we say the separation is light-like. When the time lag is more than the distance, we say the separation is time-like.) It is thought that as soon as you get a light-like separation, the path back in time through the wormhole and then returning through flat-space forms a perfect amplifier for radio, light, and any other electromagnetic signal (not to mention gravitational waves). Fluctuations in these waves spontaneously appear and build up to such huge amplitudes that they either destroy your wormhole or exert a force that pushes the wormhole ends apart so as to keep them from forming a time machine.
Fortunately, there is a way to prevent this. Charge up your wormhole, shrink it back down to what it was when it was traveling, and put the Earth end in a cyclotron. Spin it up to ultrarelativistic speeds. The time dilation on the Earth end decreases your time lag across the wormhole. Stop spinning the earth end when the time lag gets small enough, discharge the wormhole, inflate it back up to usable dimensions again, and open it back up for travelers.
Citizen Joe said: Putting wormhole mouths on the surface of worlds seems like there would always be a huge conservation of momentum issue.
Citizen Joe: There is no conservation of momentum issue. Momentum is automatically conserved locally. Here's an example:
Suppose we have a stationary wormhole mouth with mass M. It has a maglev train track going through it. A maglev trolley with mass m and velocity v floats along the track and through the wormhole. Before the trolley goes through, the total momentum of the system is
M * 0 + m * v = m * v
After the trolley goes through, the wormhole mouth has a mass of
M + m
and a velocity of
v * m / (M + m)
drifting along the track.
The total momentum of the system is
(M + m) * v * m / (M + m) = m * v
the same as before. Momentum and mass (energy, actually, and also angular momentum and electric charge) are conserved locally, with no reference at all to what is going on at the other end. (In practice, the wormhole end will probably be braced if it is on a planet's surface, not free floating along the track. In this case the wormhole exerts a force on the braces, which in turn push back on the wormhole via Newton's third law of motion. This transfers the momentum between the planet and the wormhole as the trolley goes through which keeps the wormhole stationary with respect to the planet).
But let's look at the other end for a moment. This end has a mouth with a mass M', also initially at rest. The initial momentum of the system is
M' * 0 = 0
When the trolley comes out of the mouth at velocity v, the mass of the mouth decreases to
M' - m
and it acquires a velocity of
- v * m / (M' -m)
backwards along the track such that the total momentum is still
[m * v] + [(M' - m) * (- v * m / (M' - m))] = 0
Again, momentum and mass are conserved locally. There is no dependence on the dynamics of the other end of the wormhole.
However, now we have an interesting question. What if the mass of the trolley is larger than the mass of the wormhole mouth that the trolley comes out of? The conservation of mass tells us that the wormhole mouth ends up with a negative mass! Negative mass is weird — if you push on it, it comes toward you! It seems unphysical. Perhaps it is — some relations in quantum mechanics indicate that regions with negative energy (mass) density must be bounded with regions of positive energy (mass) density and with more positive energy (mass) than negative energy (mass). If this holds, a wormhole will never acquire negative mass. Perhaps it collapses before this can happen (shearing off anything inside of it that is about to give one end negative mass). Perhaps some sort of force develops which bounces back anything in it that is about to give one end negative mass. Or maybe you really can have negative mass general relativistic (as opposed to quantum mechanical) objects. We do not know.
Personally, I think it is more interesting if you have to keep the mass of both ends positive. Now you need to be careful to balance the mass going through, which adds an interesting and novel constraint on our wormholes that is not generally seen in FTL used in fiction. But my preference is not certain, you can write stories with negative mass wormholes in them and still have them be hard science fiction if that is what you prefer.
If I understand the description of wormholes correctly, once you sent a wormhole from Earth to Terra Nova, you could not send back a different wormhole from Terra Nova to Earth without destroying one of them (if you did, you could use the Earth-TerraNova-Earth bridge to go 200 years in Earth future and return with precious informations about who won the World Cup of 2051...).
In fact, once you opened a wormhole route to a destination, you could not send a new wormhole from that destination anywhere inside the light-cone of the original source point.
What kind of effect would take care of so conveniently saving causality?
Francesco: Exactly right. Well, not quite inside the future light con — if you send the wormholes slowly so that they only built up a time lag of, say, 6 months, you could have a wormhole from Earth to Terra Nova, and another from Terra Nova to anywhere further than a light year of Earth.
There is a way around this. I mentioned taking the Earth end of the wormhole, putting it in a particle accelerator, and letting it go around in circles at ultrarelativistic speeds to reduce the time lag. If you do this for long enough, you can completely get rid of the time lag, or even reverse it. For the Earth — Terra Nova wormhole, it will require the wormhole to go around and around in the accelerator for at least 100 years, although you could always stop it every so often to let people and equipment through. Note that on Terra Nova it will seem to be much less than 100 years, since the wormhole end on earth is undergoing time dilation. This trick would allow you to build round trip wormhole networks, but you will need to be careful to keep them all synchronized to prevent time machines.
Also, the powers on Earth might not want this. Suppose we Earthlings send a wormhole to Tera Nova. And then we send another to New Carolina, 100 light years away in another direction. And maybe other wormholes to Homestead, and Johnsworld, and Zemynia, and perhaps a few other colonies. In order to trade with each other, these colonies must route their traffic through Earth, since they cannot send wormholes to each other without making a time machine. The colonies can extend their wormhole networks away from earth, but you end up with a branching tree-like network in which Earth is at the nexus, the root node, and thus all trade between major branches will come through Earth. You can see how there would be those on Earth who would be making a lot of money off of this.
One minor detail — remember that mass must be conserved locally (well, energy must be conserved locally, but to our approximation it would be mass). So if uncle Ernie wants to put his super-heavy home made ship into orbit (and assuming net negative masses are impossible), he will need to find an equal mass of stuff in orbit to bring back. The sequence might go something like this:
- Ernie launches a 10 nanogram wormhole mouth up into orbit. The corresponding mouth stays at home with him (also 10 nanograms).
- The orbiting wormhole mouth finds a 1,000,000 ton asteroid up there, and "eats" it. The asteroid is now inside the wormhole. The orbiting wormhole mouth now has a mass of 1,000,000 tons (plus ten nanograms, but I'll ignore that for now).
- Uncle Ernie puts his 400,000 ton Ernietopia habitat through the wormhole. The wormhole end back at home has a mass of 400,000 tons and the orbiting end has a mass of 600,000 tons.
- Ernie still has 1,000,000 tons of stuff inside his wormhole.
It's this minor detail that makes getting to empty space difficult, but it certainly makes getting to other planets easier.
There is one simple way of connecting far flung reaches of a
wormhole network that automatically gets you the right "time lag" for that
connection to prevent its collapse.
Suppose that the colony on the planet
of Homestead matures into its own industrial world, and they want to trade
directly with the world of Zemynia. Unfortunately, Zemynia is on another
main branch of the wormhole network, with lots of time lag from Homestead.
The engineers on Homestead can spin off a wormhole pair, keep one end on
Homestead, shrink the other down small enough to fit into a packing crate,
and then mail it to Zemynia through the existing wormhole network. When it
gets to Zemynia, the time lag of the new wormhole pair will exactly match
that of going through the pre-existing wormhole network, so that
Homesteaders can trade directly with Zemynites through the new wormhole
without needing to get routed through Earth, but both worlds can still use
the pre-existing network to trade with Earth and all the other worlds
connected to the network.
There is a risk, though.
Now that you have a closed loop, you will need to
be much more careful of relative changes in time lag between the wormhole
ends. You will need to take much more care with such a loop in your
network than you would if your network only had a branching tree-like
architecture. Just a little time slip between the ends can leave you with
the beginnings of a time machine that would break the weakest wormhole link
in the loop.
One way to mitigate this is for the Homesteaders to put their
end of the newly created wormhole some several light seconds or light
minutes away, to give a bit more leeway for time slop.
Of course, this
means that to complete this leg of the loop, you will need a robust surface
to orbit infrastructure and powerful space rockets to commute to the
wormhole end, rather than just trams or maglevs going through surface
While it would undoubtedly be an annoyance for the folks making
the Homestead-Zemynia trip, many authors and setting designers may be
secretly gleeful about this solution.
(When dealing with wormhole transit networks on the same planet, regarding accumulated time lag between wormhole ends due to elevation
differences or differences in rotational speed due to north-south distance)
A quick calculation shows that a wormhole connecting North Bend, WA with
Renton, WA (which have significantly different elevations, but nearly the
same speed) would be able to last 266 years if it was initially
A wormhole that connected Renton, WA with Kent, WA (which
are nearly the same altitude, but are in a more-or-less north south line so
their different latitudes give different speeds with a minimal distance
between them) would last 1690 years. The Public Works Department might
take them down for time balancing after about 1/10th to 1/20th of this
time, just for safety purposes — so every few decades.
The current barometric pressure in Richland, WA is 103386 Pa and the
temperature is 0 degrees C. In Rochester, NY, it is 101693 Pa and -16 C. The difference in air pressure will drive winds of 43 m/s through the
Between Richland and Davis, CA you would get 46 m/s windspeed
with current conditions. Between Richland, WA and Kenai, AK, 63 m/s.
speeds between 43 m/s and 50 m/s are a category 2 hurricane wind speeds;
between 50 m/s and 58 m/s is a category 3; and between 58 m/s and 70 m/s is
a category 4. Not only does this make transit more difficult, at 1.2
kg/m3 it will shift a lot of mass around as well.
Better put airlocks on all your portals, even on the same planet.