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This is what it would really look like to travel at near-lightspeed

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It's one of the most iconic images in all of science fiction: the stretching of stars as a ship makes the jump to lightspeed. But as a group of physics students at the University of Leicester has revealed, it wouldn't actually look like this. Instead, and assuming a ship could travel at nearly the speed of light, a crew would see a giant, fuzzy orb in the distance. And as the students' approximations have shown, that's not the half of it.

For their study, the students assumed that the Millennium Falcon (yes, this was the wording used in the study) is traveling at 99.99995 percent the speed of light (c) as it zips past the Earth towards the Sun (at a distance of 1 AU). Obviously, in keeping with the laws established by Albert Einstein, and unlike some sci-fi interpretations of faster-than-light space travel (i.e. "hyperspace"), the students could not assume a value greater than c.


The team, which consisted of Riley Connors, Katie Dexter, Joshua Argyle, and Cameron Scoular, discovered that, as the crew approaches near-lightspeed, they would see a central disc of bright light — the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang.


And fascinatingly, they would not see any signs of stars in the distance or in the peripheries. This would be on account of a cosmological Doppler effect — the same effect that causes a police car siren or train bell to change pitch as it travels past an observer.

In this case, instead of a police car or train zipping past, a Doppler blueshift effect would be created by the electromagnetic radiation — including visible light — that is rapidly moving towards the crew. This effect, say the researchers, would shorten the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. From the perspective of Han, Luke, and Leia, the wavelength of the light from neighboring stars would decrease and shift out of the visible spectrum into the X-ray range — thus making these stars invisible to the human eye.

Consequently, the Millennium Falcon's crew would be limited to seeing a central orb of light as the cosmic microwave background radiation is shifted into the visible spectrum (this background radiation was caused by the Big Bang and is spread evenly across the universe).


And interestingly, the students also realized that, when traveling at such an intense speed, a ship would be subject to incredible pressure exerted by X-rays — an effect that would push back against the ship, causing it to slow down. The researchers likened the effect to the high pressure exerted against deep-ocean submersibles exploring extreme depths. To deal with this, a spaceship would have to store extra amounts of energy to compensate for this added pressure.

Additionally, the crew would be well advised to wear eye protection, and to somehow protect themselves from harmful X-ray radiation.


The study was published in this year's University of Leicester's Journal of Physics Special Topics. It typically features original short papers written by students in their final year of their four-year Master of Physics degree, where they're encouraged to be imaginative with their topics.

You can read the entire study here.

Supplementary source and image: University of Leicester.