The Scale of Space – Why Light Speed isn’t Fast Enough

19 Sep

I’ve made several posts here discussing the scale of the universe and how we fit into it. Also, some others about the nature of light and its behavior. The problem with understanding each of these topics is that they are so damned difficult to relate to – they are both beyond our experience. Recently, I’ve come across two new videos that address these topics in a very visceral manner.

Both of these videos involve the solar system. Recently, the New Horizons probe became the first vehicle to visit the dwarf planet, Pluto. To many of us, who grew up in the time between 1930 and 2006, when Pluto was the ninth planet from the sun, this represents the limit of our solar system. The much older Voyager spacecrafts have recently been measuring a different limit to our solar system – that distance at which the influence of the sun ceases to the dominant force  – i.e., the place where you truly enter interstellar space.

The first video is our solar system modeled in a dry lakebed

The second is a simulation of what it would look like if you were riding on a photon emitted from the surface of the sun.

Amazingly, in this second video, we find that traveling at the speed of light suddenly feels unsatisyingly slow. Why doesn’t it look more like this cockpit view of the Millennium Falcon making the jump to light speed?

you don't want to bounce too close to a star...

you don’t want to bounce too close to a star…

In fact, we know that in Star Wars ships travel all over the galaxy. For a point of reference, the Milky Way Galaxy is about 100,000 light years across, which means that even for ships traveling at light speed, they’re getting nowhere near one another. Luckily, I’m not the only one who has thought about this problem. Chris Lough, at, has already worked out the math using a few arbitrary numbers that can at least give us an idea of how fast we would need to go to make this kind of Sci Fi realistic. It turns out that the Millennium Falcon must be going somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000+ light years / hr. At that speed, we might just be able to see the stars whipping past our ship just like the movie.

hqdefault-1It might be easier just to fold space, a la Dune, than yo ever get a hunk of metal to move that fast.

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Posted by on September 19, 2015 in Uncategorized


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