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Near-lightspeed space travel: Not as cool-looking as you think

If you never have the opportunity to travel at near-lightspeed in space, you won't be missing much. It actually looks a bit boring.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Real look of near-lightspeed
Here's what near-lightspeed travel would really look like. Woo-hoo. University of Leicester

You're onboard the Millennium Falcon. You give the command to jump to lightspeed. The stars outside turn into long streaks of light and you're off. It's one of the most memorable images of sci-fi space travel ever created. It's also likely to be pretty far from reality, according to a study by a group of students from the U.K.'s University of Leicester.

The study, titled "Relativistic Optics Strikes Back," was published in the University of Leicester's Journal of Physics Special Topics. You can indulge in all the delicious physics equations in the abstract.

The physics students started by imagining that the Millennium Falcon has accidentally wandered into our solar system, on a direct course for our sun. If it then engaged in near-lightspeed travel, the stars around it wouldn't appear to stretch out. Instead, it would look more like a disc of light.

The Doppler effect is to blame for spoiling George Lucas' vision of high-speed space travel. In this case, it's a Doppler blue shift caused by electromagnetic radiation (including visible light) moving toward the observer. According to a release on the study, "They would simply see a central disc of bright light as Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is shifted into the visible spectrum."

The study doesn't just ruin the look of near-lightspeed travel, it also shows that the pressure would be pretty much unbearable. The pressure on the spaceship would be like having it at the bottom of the ocean. On top of all that, harmful X-ray radiation would be a major problem for Wookiees and humans alike.

This just reinforces why we need the "fiction" in "science fiction." If the Millennium Falcon clung stubbornly to the laws of physics, the whole "Star Wars" franchise wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

Hyperspace travel in movies
Here's the movie version of hyperspace travel. University of Leicester

(Via iO9)