Sound, Light and the Breaking of Speed-Barriers

(A continuing conversation from my Theory of Everything series of posts)

It was once said that "it's impossible to exceed the speed of sound" and we now live in an age where "it's impossible to exceed the speed of light." The argument goes, that according to E = mc2 or m = E/c2, you need to exert infinite energy on a mass for it to approach the speed of light (and have our equation remain true). Put another way, the speed of light is constant, so as we increase the energy (E) in the system, we also increase the relative mass (m). This relative mass is how heavy the object seems - or how hard it is to make it go faster.

As far as light speed is concerned, I believe there are two occasions to practically approach the speed of light and one instance where we might just be able to surpass it. Consider the concept of Gravity-Assisted Acceleration as employed in the Voyager Missions.

The satellites sped up by nearly 16,000 m/s via a kick from Jupiter. To get to the speed of light they would have needed to approach 300,000,000 m/s. Ignoring how fast they were traveling, assuming they used similar maneuvers, and keeping most other variables constant, they would have needed to pass by Jupiter nearly 19000 times to approach the speed of light. Surely that's not beyond the realm of possibilities for spaceships in the near future. Even if they only do this 100 times in 10 years, I think it would be worth it to sling a spaceship far beyond our solar system on a 30 year mission. We could program it to wave goodbye as it zipped past Voyagers I and II.

Speaking of "impossible missions," how about lifting 10 fully-loaded solid rocket boosters into space - whatever the cost, then strapping them together and seeing how quickly they can travel to mars? I bet it would be a lot faster than 3 years! There are simple calculations that can be done to figure out exactly how far and how fast such a super-booster ship will travel - along with how costly it is to get the materials into space. I leave that for our friends at NASA (and/or you) to figure out, but keep in mind that we've spent billions on the space station, so the cost shouldn't be unprecedented or something to cry about.

In special regards to traveling beyond the speed of light, we need to take our thought experiment a little further. Our gravity-assist approach could be more effective if we use the sun instead of Jupiter (assuming the spaceship can withstand the heat). We would surely reduce the 19000 loops by a factor of 10 or 100. And while we're at it, upon reaching 99.9999% the speed of light, we should be able to activate rocket boosters we were saving all that time, plus utilize the direct attractive force of the sun to exceed the speed of light in a crash-landing. I don't believe this would be impossible "because the equation says so." The reason is, just as when zooming into a black hole, we don't have an external object trying to kick the ship forward while pushing itself backwards, and we don't require infinite internal energy to accelerate the ship. Instead, we have the attractive force (from my 1st Law) pulling the ship closer and faster. The only impossibility would be extracting the ship after the crash.

A nice analogy to estimating speed barriers is looking at what happens when powerful magnets come together. Let's take a strong neodymium magnet - with a pull force of 5 lbs. Put two in close proximity and watch them slam together. Do the same (be really careful!) with neo-magnets that at 10 times more powerful. SMACK. Did you see how fast they moved? Have a professional do the same experiment with neo-magnets that are 100 or 1000 times more powerful than that. SMASH! At some point, the attractive force should bring these magnets together at speeds approaching the speed of light. And as fast as the eye can comprehend, it might as well have exceeded the speed of light. The question is what new phenomenon would you have discovered at the light speed-barrier? Something like a sonic boom? A photonic blast maybe?

I believe that one way or another, the "light speed-barrier" will go the way of the "sound speed-barrier" and when the day comes, we'll embrace a new equation, and go on as usual like nothing happened. Think I'm wrong? Give it 100 years and you'll see I'm right.

(This article has more details about the Planetary Swing-by)

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