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What's Hyperspace?
An artist's conception of what the universe might look like from a spacecraft traveling through hyperspace.
Credit: Truelight9 | Dreamstime

Hyperspace is the premise that it's possible to travel at speeds faster than that of light when energy from other dimensions is harnessed, and is an idea much used by science fictions writers.

"If Captain Kirk were constrained to move at the speed of our fastest rockets , it would take him a hundred thousand years just to get to the next star system," said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif.. "So science fiction has long postulated a way to beat the speed of light barrier so the story can move a little more quickly."

But in reality, the concept is "a lot of hype," Shostak said.

The concept of hyperspace travel is also known as hyperdrive, subspace and warp speed.

But the dearth of research and scholarly discussion on the transportation method make it more often a convenient literary device than scientific possibility, Shostak said.

Other dimensions

Physics suggests that shortcuts through space do exist, Shostak said. The curved nature of space was first proposed by Einstein, and quickly led to the idea of a wormhole: a portion of space that curves in on itself, connecting two otherwise distant parts of space. A spacecraft could theoretically skip ahead to a distant region of space if it enters such a wormhole between the two locations.

As in our familiar universe, objects in a wormhole would have to travel slower than the speed of light. But, a spaceship could appear to have exceeded this limit, by traveling through a wormhole and reaching a star system thousand of lights years away in a matter of hours, for example.

However, our access to these inter-space freeways would be limited by the size of the portal.

"Wormholes, we think, are made all the time on a microscopic level," Shostak said. "But the question is, can we actually use them for transportation?"

Finding or creating a wormhole that's going to the right place and scooting through it before it closes up and smashes one to pieces are two unsolved problems that the laws of physics don't clearly bar or allow.

Technically, it would be possible to warp space to create wormhole if one could place a very dense piece of mass in front of their rocketship, Shostak said. Perhaps similar to the "hyperspace engine" seen in the Star Wars movies, the object would distort the shape of space around it, essentially bringing the chosen destination closer to the ship. But the object would need to have the density of the center of a black hole in order to work.

"The problem is, where do you get the black hole and how do you get it in front of your spacecraft?" Shostak said. "It's sort of like, how do you create something that will warp space and then put it in front of your spacecraft?"

What about teleportation?

A related science fiction idea is teleportation the possibility of instantly conveying a person or ship into another part of the universe . The phenomenon is seen in Star Trek, where a so-called teleporter deconstructs one's body and reconstructs it at another, distant location.

There is some scientific basis for this idea -- scientists have shown that subatomic particles can be moved from one point to another faster than the speed of light, said physicist Ian Durham at Saint Anselm College.

But the ability to break apart and reassemble an entire human appears impossible, Durham said. Because of the randomized aspects behind the arrangement of subatomic particles, perfectly reversing them becomes increasingly difficult as they accumulate in greater numbers.

Star-jumping, within limits

Still, the notion of hyperspace exists in science fiction for a reason: there's a big difference between travelling at nearly the speed of light and travelling over it.

Spaceships travelling at 99 percent the speed of light could reach a star several light years away within a person's lifetime , Shostak said.

But for cosmic bodies billions of light years away, such travel would still not be an option the lifetimes of many generations of humans would be needed.

"As far as we know, travelling between the stars is either very hard, or involves exploiting wormholes in a way we don't understand yet," Shostak said. "On the other hand, we have to remember that the universe continually surprises us with its subtlety."

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