Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Is hyperspace travel as seen in Star Wars possible?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in UK cinemas from midnight. Professor Carsten Welsch, Head of Physics at Liverpool University, looks at the possibility of hyperspace travel, as depicted in the space saga, in a guest post.


“She’s the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy!”

Ok, so the Millennium Falcon made it from Hoth to Bespin even without its hyperdrive, and technically speaking, traversing the void between stars remains a fantasy, but science fiction is boldly edging a little closer to the frontiers of science fact thanks to pioneering work at the Cockcroft Institute, where experts from the University of Liverpool are leading a ground (and space) breaking programme to train antimatter scientists.

It's the explosive reaction between matter and antimatter that underpins one of the most iconic elements of Star Wars – rapid interstellar travel – but in the real world, this principle makes the study of antimatter difficult because, as Professor Carsten Welsch, Head of Physics at Liverpool University, says, “when an antiparticle and a particle meet they annihilate each other, disappearing in a flash of energy – so a trapping device is needed.”

Until now, only a very small amount of antiparticles have been able to be trapped this way, and for a limited amount of time. But a new facility based at CERN, the Extra Low Energy Antiproton ring (ELENA), will change this, becoming the first and only facility in the world to store and deliver cooled antiproton beams at low energy. Researchers at the Cockcroft Institute’s Accelerators Validating Antimatter physics research and training network, (AVA), will then be able to take a closer look at these mysterious particles and try to understand why it is that all matter in the universe created after the Big Bang isn’t accompanied by an equal amount of antimatter, or particles with an opposite charge.

Prof Welsch says: “The instrumentation and detectors to be developed by AVA will provide us with much better insight into low energy antimatter beams, so that we will be able to understand and control them better and carry out hitherto impossible experiments.” Such experiments have the potential to rewrite our assumptions about the nature and properties of space and time, making it one of the most exciting fields of research out there.

In fact, if scientists can work out how to create or collect large amount of antimatter, antimatter-propelled interstellar travel might even become a reality, although it’s unlikely you’ll ever make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. But if for now we’re still in the dark when it comes to some of the great problems of physics, the Cockcroft Institute and AVA aim to balance this with some much-needed light on the most enigmatic aspects of our universe.

About the Cockcroft Institute:

The Cockcroft Institute is an international centre of excellence for accelerator science and technology in the UK.