Communicating With a Relativistic Spacecraft Gets Pretty Weird

Artistic rendition of an interstellar spacecraft traveling near the speed of light. Credit: Made with ChatGPT

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, humans may send robotic probes to explore nearby star systems. These robot explorers will likely take the form of lightsails and wafercraft (a la Breakthrough Starshot) that will rely on directed energy (lasers) to accelerate to relativistic speeds – aka. a fraction of the speed of light. With that kind of velocity, lightsails and wafercraft could make the journey across interstellar space in a matter of decades instead of centuries (or longer!) Given time, these missions could serve as pathfinders for more ambitious exploration programs involving astronauts.

Of course, any talk of interstellar travel must consider the massive technical challenges this entails. In a recent paper, a team of engineers and astrophysicists considered the effects that relativistic space travel will have on communications. Their results showed that during the cruise phase of the mission (where a spacecraft is traveling close to the speed of light), communications become problematic for one-way and two-way transmissions. This will pose significant challenges for crewed missions but will leave robotic missions largely unaffected.

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Thinking About Time Travel Helps Solve Problems in Physics

Physicists have shown that simulating models of hypothetical time travel can solve experimental problems that appear impossible to solve using standard physics. Credit: Yaroslav Kushta via Getty Images

Time travel. We’ve all thought about it at one time or another, and the subject has been explored extensively in science fiction. Once in a while, it is even the subject of scientific research, typically involving quantum mechanics and how the Universe’s four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces, and gravity) fit together. In a recent experiment, researchers at the University of Cambridge showed that by manipulating quantum entanglements, they could simulate what could happen if the flow of time were reversed.

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What is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

Einstein Lecturing
Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. Credit: National Library of Austria/F Schmutzer/Public Domain

In the history of science and physics, several scholars, theories, and equations have become household names. In terms of scientists, notable examples include Pythagoras, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Planck, and Hawking. In terms of theories, there’s Archimede’s “Eureka,” Newton’s Apple (Universal Gravitation), and Schrodinger’s Cat (quantum mechanics). But the most famous and renowned is arguably Albert Einstein, Relativity, and the famous equation, E=mc2. In fact, Relativity may be the best-known scientific concept that few people truly understand.

For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity comes in two parts: the Special Theory of Relativity (SR and the General Theory of Relativity (GR). And the term “Relativity” itself goes back to Galileo Galilee and his explanation for why motion and velocity are relative to the observer. As you can probably tell, explaining how Einstein’s groundbreaking theory works require a deep dive into the history of physics, some advanced concepts, and how it all came together for one of the greatest minds of all time!

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There's no way to Measure the Speed of Light in a Single Direction

Special relativity is one of the most strongly validated theories humanity has ever devised. It is central to everything from space travel and GPS to our electrical power grid. Central to relativity is the fact that the speed of light in a vacuum is an absolute constant. The problem is, that fact has never been proven.

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Time Travel, Without the Pesky Paradoxes

A time machine connects to the past. Credit: David Revoy / Blender Foundation (CC BY 3.0)

Time travel is a staple of science fiction, and not without reason. Who wouldn’t want to go back in time to explore history, or save the world from catastrophe. Time travel has also been deeply studied within the context of theoretical physics because it tests the limits of our scientific theories. If time travel is possible, it has implications for everything from the origin of the universe to the existence of free will. One of the central problems of time travel theory is that it gives rise to logical paradoxes. But a couple of researchers think they have solved the pesky paradox problem.

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First Ever Image of Quantum Entanglement

Credit: Science Advances (2019). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw2563

During the 1930s, venerable theoretical physicist Albert Einstein returned to the field of quantum mechanics, which his theories of relativity helped to create. Hoping to develop a more complete theory of how particles behave, Einstein was instead horrified by the prospect of quantum entanglement – something he described as “spooky action at a distance”.

Despite Einstein’s misgivings, quantum entanglement has gone on to become an accepted part of quantum mechanics. And now, for the first time ever, a team of physicists from the University of Glasgow took an image of a form of quantum entanglement (aka. Bell entanglement) at work. In so doing, they managed to capture the first piece of visual evidence of a phenomenon that baffled even Einstein himself.

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What Happens When Black Holes Collide?

The sign of a truly great scientific theory is by the outcomes it predicts when you run experiments or perform observations. And one of the greatest theories ever proposed was the concept of Relativity, described by Albert Einstein in the beginning of the 20th century.

In addition to helping us understand that light is the ultimate speed limit of the Universe, Einstein described gravity itself as a warping of spacetime.

He did more than just provide a bunch of elaborate new explanations for the Universe, he proposed a series of tests that could be done to find out if his theories were correct.

One test, for example, completely explained why Mercury’s orbit didn’t match the predictions made by Newton. Other predictions could be tested with the scientific instruments of the day, like measuring time dilation with fast moving clocks.

Since gravity is actually a distortion of spacetime, Einstein predicted that massive objects moving through spacetime should generate ripples, like waves moving through the ocean.

The more massive the object, the more it distorts spacetime. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle
The more massive the object, the more it distorts spacetime. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

Just by walking around, you leave a wake of gravitational waves that compress and expand space around you. However, these waves are incredibly tiny. Only the most energetic events in the entire Universe can produce waves we can detect.

It took over 100 years to finally be proven true, the direct detection of gravitational waves. In February, 2016, physicists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO announced the collision of two massive black holes more than a billion light-years away.

Any size of black hole can collide. Plain old stellar mass black holes or supermassive black holes. Same process, just on a completely different scale.

Colliding black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet
Colliding black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet

Let’s start with the stellar mass black holes. These, of course, form when a star with many times the mass of our Sun dies in a supernova. Just like regular stars, these massive stars can be in binary systems.

Imagine a stellar nebula where a pair of binary stars form. But unlike the Sun, each of these are monsters with many times the mass of the Sun, putting out thousands of times as much energy. The two stars will orbit one another for just a few million years, and then one will detonate as a supernova. Now you’ll have a massive star orbiting a black hole.  And then the second star explodes, and now you have two black holes orbiting around each other.

As the black holes zip around one another, they radiate gravitational waves which causes their orbit to decay. This is kind of mind-bending, actually. The black holes convert their momentum into gravitational waves.

As their angular momentum decreases, they spiral inward until they actually collide.  What should be one of the most energetic explosions in the known Universe is completely dark and silent, because nothing can escape a black hole. No radiation, no light, no particles, no screams, nothing. And if you mash two black holes together, you just get a more massive black hole.

The gravitational waves ripple out from this momentous collision like waves through the ocean, and it’s detectable across more than a billion light-years.

Arial view of LIGO Livingston. (Image credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration).
Arial view of LIGO Livingston. Credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration

This is exactly what happened earlier this year with the announcement from LIGO. This sensitive instrument detected the gravitational waves generated when two black holes with 30 solar masses collided about 1.3 billion light-years away.

This wasn’t a one-time event either, they detected another collision with two other stellar mass black holes.

Regular stellar mass black holes aren’t the only ones that can collide. Supermassive black holes can collide too.

From what we can tell, there’s a supermassive black hole at the heart of pretty much every galaxy in the Universe. The one in the Milky Way is more than 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun, and the one at the heart of Andromeda is thought to be 110 to 230 million times the mass of the Sun.

In a few billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda are going to collide, and begin the process of merging together. Unless the Milky Way’s black hole gets kicked off into deep space, the two black holes are going to end up orbiting one another.

Just with the stellar mass black holes, they’re going to radiate away angular momentum in the form of gravitational waves, and spiral closer and closer together. Some point, in the distant future, the two black holes will merge into an even more supermassive black hole.

View of Milkdromeda from Earth "shortly" after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger
View of Milkdromeda from Earth “shortly” after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now. Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger

The Milky Way and Andromeda will merge into Milkdromeda, and over the future billions of years, will continue to gather up new galaxies, extract their black holes and mashing them into the collective.

Black holes can absolutely collide. Einstein predicted the gravitational waves this would generate, and now LIGO has observed them for the first time. As better tools are developed, we should learn more and more about these extreme events.

How Far Can You Travel?

How Far Can You Travel?

In a previous article, I talked about how you can generate artificial gravity by accelerating at 9.8 meters per second squared. Do that and you pretty much hit the speed of light, then you decelerate at 1G and you’ve completed an epic journey while enjoying comfortable gravity on board at the same time. It’s a total win win.

What I didn’t mention how this acceleration messes up time for you and people who aren’t traveling with you. Here’s the good news. If you accelerate at that pace for years, you can travel across billions of light years within a human lifetime.

Here’s the bad news, while you might experience a few decades of travel, the rest of the Universe will experience billions of years. The Sun you left will have died out billions of years ago when you arrive at your destination.

Welcome to the mind bending implications of constantly accelerating relativistic spaceflight.

With many things in physics, we owe our understanding of relativistic travel to Einstein. Say it with me, “thanks Einstein.”

The effect of time dilation is negligible for common speeds, such as that of a car or even a jet plane, but it increases dramatically when one gets close to the speed of light.
The effect of time dilation is negligible for common speeds, such as that of a car or even a jet plane, but it increases dramatically when one gets close to the speed of light.

It works like this. The speed of light is always constant, no matter how fast you’re going. If I’m standing still and shine a flashlight, I see light speed away from me at 300,000 km/s. And if you’re traveling at 99% the speed of light and shine a flashlight, you’ll see light moving away at 300,000 km/s.

But from my perspective, standing still, you look as if you’re moving incredibly slowly. And from your nearly light-speed perspective, I also appear to be moving incredibly slowly – it’s all relative. Whatever it takes to make sure that light is always moving at, well, the speed of light.

This is time dilation, and you’re actually experiencing it all the time, when you drive in cars or fly in an airplane. The amount of time that elapses for you is different for other people depending on your velocity. That amount is so minute that you’ll never notice it, but if you’re traveling at close to the speed of light, the differences add up pretty quickly.

But it gets even more interesting than this. If you could somehow build a rocket capable of accelerating at 9.8 meters/second squared, and just went faster and faster, you’d hit the speed of light in about a year or so, but from your perspective, you could just keep on accelerating. And the longer you accelerate, the further you get, and the more time that the rest of the Universe experiences.

The really strange consequence, though, is that from your perspective, thanks to relativity, flight times are compressed.

I’m using the relativistic star ship calculator at You should give it a try too.

Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

For starters, let’s fly to the nearest star, 4.3 light-years away. I accelerate halfway at a nice comfortable 1G, then turn around and decelerate at 1G. It only felt like 3.5 years for me, but back on Earth, everyone experienced almost 6 years. At the fastest point, I was going about 95% the speed of light.

Let’s scale this up and travel to the center of the Milky Way, located about 28,000 light-years away. From my perspective, only 20 years have passed by. But back on Earth, 28,000 years have gone by. At the fastest point, I was going 99.9999998 the speed of light.

Let’s go further, how about to the Andromeda Galaxy, located 2.5 million light-years away. The trip only takes me 33 years to accelerate and decelerate, while Earth experienced 2.5 million years. See how this works?

The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

I promised I’d blow your mind, and here it is. If you wanted to travel at a constant 1G acceleration and then deceleration to the very edge of the observable Universe. That’s a distance of 13.8 billion light-years away; you would only experience a total of 45 years. Of course, once you got there, you’d have a very different observable Universe, and billions of years of expansion and dark energy would have pushed the galaxies much further away from you.

Some galaxies will have fallen over the cosmic horizon, where no amount of time would ever let you reach them.

If you wanted to travel 100 trillion light years away, you could make the journey in 62 years. By the time you arrived, the Universe would be vastly different. Most of the stars would have died a long time ago, the Universe would be out of usable hydrogen. You would have have left a living thriving Universe trillions of years in the past. And you could never get back.

Our good friends over at Kurzgesagt  covered a very similar topic, discussing the limits of humanity’s exploration of the Universe. It’s wonderful and you should watch it right now.

Of course, creating a spacecraft capable of constant 1G acceleration requires energies we can’t even imagine, and will probably never acquire. And even if you did it, the Universe you enjoy would be a distant memory. So don’t get too excited about fast forwarding yourself trillions of years into the future.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 371: The Eddington Eclipse Experiment

At the turn of the 20th Century, Einstein’s theory of relativity stunned the physics world, but the experimental evidence needed to be found. And so, in 1919, another respected astronomer, Arthur Eddington, observed the deflection of stars by the gravity of the Sun during a solar eclipse. Here’s the story of that famous experiment.
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