Star Wars: What would hyperspace travel really look like?

January 14, 2013, University of Leicester
What University of Leicester physics students suggest hyperspace travel would really look like. Credit: University of Leicester

The sight of the Millennium Falcon making the "jump to lightspeed" is one of the most iconic images from the Star Wars trilogy.

But University of Leicester have calculated that – in reality – Han, Luke and Leia would not see the light from stars stretching past the ship as we are shown in the movies.

The group of fourth year MPhys students published the findings in this year's University of Leicester's Journal of Physics Special Topics. The journal is published every year, and features original short papers written by students in the final year of their four-year Master of Physics degree.

The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and the aim is for them to learn about aspects of publishing and peer review.

In the films, spacecraft are equipped with hyperdrives which allow them to approach the .

As the hyperdrive is engaged, every star in the sky is seen to stretch before the characters' eyes as the ship speeds through the galaxy.

The four students - Riley Connors, Katie Dexter, Joshua Argyle, and Cameron Scoular – have shown that this would not be the case.

They have shown that the crew would actually see a central disc of bright light.

An example of how the the films suggest hyperspace travel would look like. Credit: University of Leicester

There would be no sign of stars because of the - the same effect which causes the siren of an ambulance to become higher in pitch as it comes towards you.

Doppler blue shift is a phenomenon caused by a source of – including visible light - moving towards an observer.

The effect means that the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation will be shortened.

From the Millennium Falcon crew's point of view, the wavelength of the light from stars will decrease and 'shift' out of the visible spectrum into the X-ray range.

They would simply see a central disc of bright light as Radiation is shifted into the .

Cosmic is radiation left behind from the Big Bang, and is spread across the universe fairly uniformly.

The group found after further investigation that the intense X-rays from stars would push the ship back, causing it to slow down. The pressure felt by the ship would be comparable to that felt at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Their calculations also show that Han would need to store extra amounts of energy on his ship to overcome this pressure in order to continue on his journeys.

Riley Connors, 21, from Milton Keynes, said: "If the Millennium Falcon existed and really could travel that fast, sunglasses would certainly be advisable. On top of this, the ship would need something to protect the crew from harmful X-ray radiation."

Joshua Argyle, 22, from Leicester, added: "The resultant effects we worked out were based on Einstein's theory of Special Relativity, so while we may not be used to them in our daily lives, Han Solo and his crew should certainly understand its implications."

Katie Dexter, 21, from Kettering, concluded: "Perhaps Disney should take the physical implications of such high speed travel into account in their forthcoming films."

Course leader Dr Mervyn Roy, a lecturer at the University's Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: "A lot of the papers published in the Journal are on subjects that are amusing, topical, or a bit off-the-wall. Our fourth years are nothing if not creative! But, to be a research physicist - in industry or academia - you need to show some imagination, to think outside the box, and this is certainly something that the module allows our students to practice.

"Most of our masters students hope to go on to careers in research where a lot of their time will be taken up with scientific publishing - writing and submitting papers, and writing and responding to referee reports.

"This is another area where the module really helps. Because Physics Special Topics is run exactly like a professional journal, the students get the chance to develop all the skills they will need when dealing with high profile journals later on in life."

Explore further: The Dark Knight Rises - and crashes: Students discover Batman's cape gliding technique is fatally flawed

More information: Full papers: … article/view/549/360 , … article/view/575/386

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3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 14, 2013
If the Millennium Falcon existed and really could travel that fast, sunglasses would certainly be advisable.

To quote Terminator 2: "Anyone not wearing sunscreen factor 2 billion is going to have a really bad day"

A simulation of an all-around view would be nice. Looking back everything would be shifted into the far infrared
At faster than light speeds there shouldn't be any radiation coming from the back at all. It would look 'colder' than the 3K average of the CMB)

I'm not entirely sure what the view to the side would look like. First guess was that it would shift from the x-ray to infrared the further you get to a 90degree view from straight ahead.

But another train of thought is that there'd be an abrupt change from 'visible as usual' at exactly 90 degrees to 'totally black' at anything beyond 90 degrees (because any source that is even slightly redshifted wouldn't send out any photons that could catch up)

Anyone have any calcs on this?
5 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2013
Depending on your "lightspeed", the CMB has moved into visible from microwave. Depending on the speed, the perceived color could shift up and down the spectrum. There should a be little to the forward-side view since the travel would be parallel to these sources, so it seems that you would see some kind of very dim representation of stars in a very narrow visual zone. Based on speed, this should be a ring of dim stars at about 10 and 2 o'clock and should look like a rainbow, UV at the top passing through IR at the bottom. Nothing would be visible past this ring and on to the rear since light can't catch up. That's my layman 2 cents worth.
not rated yet Jan 14, 2013
Raygunner: That's the description I've read for years. The "rainbow" would be closer to the central point at higher speeds, and more to the side at lower, but behind that there would be nothing visible.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2013
I find it interesting that no mention is made of the frequency gradient that would surround the visual field from the forward point to the 90 degree point to the sides. Assuming a speed of 2x the speed of light, it seems a simple graph could show the doppler effect and resulting freq spread and roll-off. You could easily tag the CMB all the way through to normal starlight and come up with an even more realistic representation of what the human eye would see. You could also tag all the other frequencies that could be detected by other detectors.

An exercise in futility I know since superluminal travel is currently impossible based on what we know. But it's fun to "see" what it might really look like. It would be great to have an interactive app that would let you adjust a slider in .1 increments of c and starting at zero, and all the way up to 100 c. I would even pay .99 cents for it.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2013
Pretending eyeballs can be place in space and the signals extracted is there a spectrum shift even without motion?

4 / 5 (4) Jan 14, 2013
I always took "lightspeed" to be more of a simplification in the star wars universe, acting as a simple way for people to say superluminal speed. As they were able to jump around the galaxy in a matter of days, or even outside of the galaxy, as in the end of Empire Strikes Back, it is clear that they have not approached lightspeed, but far exceeded it. Or perhaps not, as they seem to suffer none of the effects of time dilation after multiple jumps to "lightspeed." Luke is a little late getting to Bespin after his stop on Degoba, but he would have been at least a few years late had he been traveling 0.9c.
Therefore I must conclude that they are utilizing some form of dark energy engine that contracts spacetime in front of the ship and expands spacetime behind it, thereby allowing faster than light travel and circumventing the negative effects of time dilation by not actually moving at all.

I would be curious to see the calculations on what this would look like.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2013
This has been known for some time. Frederick Pohl included the concept in several of his novels from the 80's. Very cool though!
1 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2013
This is stupid. It wouldn't look like that... It wouldn't look like anything, because it can't actually happen
5 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2013
Nuge: Of course it can happen. Anyone can theorize what travelling anywhere through the universe would look like from any point in space travelling at any speed, using various physical laws.

That's exactly what the students showed.

It's a frame-of-reference issue. Can people *actually* travel the speed of light, etc? No. What "actually happened" was the theorizing, which is very possible.
2.4 / 5 (5) Jan 14, 2013
Wrong. A warp drive would contract space ahead of it and expand it behind, but nothing would happen in the middle,. This bubble is not even moving at all, it is the space itself deforming around it, the astronauts inside the bubble would not experience time dilation. All radiation would be deviated trough the sides as the space would be warped spherically, so they would see everything black, just nothing.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2013
But what effect does the required energy field create to allow the jump to light speed have?
not rated yet Jan 15, 2013
still, i think stars should be visible, even though the radiation emitted by the stars is also shifted, unless the CMBR would be so bright that the stars won't be seen because of it.
3 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2013
All radiation would be deviated trough the sides as the space would be warped spherically, so they would see everything black, just nothing.

I seem to remember an article on physorg very recently that calculated what would happen to radiation for an Alcubierre type warp drive.

Ah. Here it is:

Quote: "Of course, when the ship reaches its destination it has to stop. And that's when all hell breaks loose."
not rated yet Jan 15, 2013
So the original Planet of the apes had it right all along..

not rated yet Jan 15, 2013
hyperspace != lightspeed
4 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2013
Its good to see students coming up with their own problems and working them out, but the visible appearance of the universe at large gamma values was worked out long before these students were born so its certainly not new (that's just an issue with the article not the students).

As far as Star Wars goes the mode of travel is magic not science so it can actually look like anything.

But when "light speed" isn't good enough what does the jump to "ludicrous speed" look like?
1 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2013
This is stupid. It wouldn't look like that... It wouldn't look like anything, because it can't actually happen

Agreed. BUT if it *could* happen, it still wouldn't look like anything, because our eyes (and cameras for that matter) aren't built to see "backwards light".

I've found the same problem with time travel.

Word to the wise - if you're going to go gallivanting backwards through time, set your course BEFORE departure, because you're blinder than a dead bat while in transit.
2 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2013
what does the jump to "ludicrous speed" look like?

not rated yet Jan 19, 2013
popaduhu is right, a blueshifted thermal spectrum is still a thermal spectrum, but of a hotter object. So at visible wave lengths starlight will be even brighter.
not rated yet Jan 21, 2013
I've always felt that the effects used in depicting Worm Hole 'travel' eg. "Stargate" were also incorrect. If a Wormhole "instantly" connected two 'locations' in space/time would not the effect be as walking through a door to the 'other' location, without the experience of all the whooshing, motion, and light?

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