Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
If humanity wants to survive past the lifespan of Earth, we’re going to need to leave our solar system. Now that we’ve seen what we’ve built and what we’re building, we’re taking a look at the spaceships humanity could create in the far, distant future. These are all almost entirely theoretical ships, rockets, sails, and bombs that aren’t a major interest for modern space companies, but could be used to take humanity to the next stage of space exploration: out of our solar system towards other stars. There’s essentially no chance that we’ll see any of these as functioning ships within our lifetimes, but they very well could be the future of human space travel.
Click through the gallery to see the ships that humanity could be riding in over the next few centuries.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
1 of 6
Solar sails, electric sails, and microwave sails are all based around the same idea: use a structure to capture the momentum of an outer space phenomena and transfer that momentum into a ship or probe. In the same way that a boat's sail captures the wind, solar, electric, and microwave sails move using photons, electrons, and microwave beams, respectively, but the principle is essentially the same. A large enough sail with near-perfect efficiency, could conceivably get up to incredible speeds over a relatively short amount of time. Using a sailing spaceship could be beneficial as they bypass all of the drawbacks of fuel, while still being able to achieve interstellar speeds of travel. Combustible fuel is dangerous, requires a massive amount of space, and comprises 95% of the weight of a spaceflight. Unfortunately, sailing spaceships aren't a priority for any major space companies since the idea is still in its infancy and is more appropriately suited for long-distance travel, not orbital or lunar missions. NASA built a 13,000 square-foot test solar sail called Sunjammer in 2011 that could fold down to the size of a dishwasher and weighed just 110 pounds, but the project was cancelled in 2014 before it could be tested in orbit (an artist's rendition is pictured). Bill Nye's nonprofit space company Planetary Society successfully launched and opened a 344 square-foot sail called LightSail in 2015 to test the engineering of its deployment procedures, though it was never meant to actually sail. LightSail 2 will launch in September of 2017 to fully test the viability of solar sailing.
Image via NASA
2 of 6
Black Hole Ships
In terms of spaceships that sound like bad ideas, the black hole spaceship probably ranks at the top of the list. The idea was made popular in a 2009 paper by two professors at Kansas State University that described the ludicrous sounding concept as "at the edge of possibility." By using lasers to direct an immense amount of energy at a point smaller than the nucleus of an atom, it's theoretically possible to create a microscopic black hole, called a Kugelblitz. Black holes emit a type of energy called Hawking radiation in all directions. The smaller the black hole, the more Hawking radiation it gives off. By strapping the microscopic black hole into a dish that allows the Hawking radiation to escape in only one direction, you could accelerate a ship to speeds that make interstellar travel possible within a human lifetime. Naturally, this idea has a lot of asterisks next to it. Firstly, we are currently nowhere close to harnessing the amount of energy needed to create a Kugelblitz. There's also the problem of how to secure a black hole to spaceship. Refueling the Kugelblitz would also be difficult since putting more energy into a microscopic black hole would require enormous amounts of energy and perfect precision. Then, there's the problem of slowing the ship down after a black hole has rocketed it across the galaxy at millions of miles per hour. It's not a flawless idea, but the potential inherent in black holes opens up a number of interesting avenues for interstellar travel.
Image via Wikipedia/Alain R
3 of 6
The Bussard Ramjet
A ramjet is a type of jet engine that sucks in air at high speeds, compressing it down to volatile levels and creating combustion. Physicist Robert W. Bussard proposed an idea for making the outer space equivalent of a ramjet, which works on the same principle, but using stray hydrogen particles instead of air. A spaceship would be outfitted with massive electromagnetic fields, extending out thousands of kilometers in diameter. These fields would collect the hydrogen and funnel it towards the ram. Inside the ram, the hydrogen would be compressed together until thermonuclear fusion occurred, creating fuel for the ship. The obvious benefit of the ramjet is that a ship wouldn't need to carry fuel for its entire journey. Instead, it would just need enough fuel to get going fast enough for the ramjet to begin working, saving on space and weight. It has met with criticism that the amount of energy needed to collect and compress the hydrogen would exceed the amount that could be used as fuel. There are also concerns about how much hydrogen could be effectively collected and what might happen if such a ship wandered into a region of space with little hydrogen to harvest.
Image via Bisbos.com
4 of 6
Nuclear Pulse Propulsion
Following the black hole ship on the list of ideas that sound terrible is NASA's Project Orion, which would have used nuclear bombs to propel itself. Not to be confused with NASA's current Orion project, Project Orion was conceived in the 1940s as a possible method for space travel, but it was in competition with chemical rockets like the Saturn V. Project Orion worked via a process called pulse propulsion. A pulse unit containing a nuclear bomb and a plastic propellant would be launched behind the ship. The bomb would explode turning the propellant into superhot plasma, which would hit against a 135-foot wide "pusher plate" on the bottom of the ship, propelling the entire thing upwards. This process would be repeated in rapid succession, with small explosions every second to begin liftoff and then large explosions every ten seconds as Orion reached its intended speed. It's estimated that Orion would have been 13 times more efficient than the main engine on the Space Shuttle and could have gone to Mars and back in just three months. Though the design was functional, there were naturally concerns about the safety of the crew and Earth itself with so many nuclear explosions. Project Orion was cancelled in 1964, shortly after the passing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited testing nuclear bombs above ground. Safety issues notwithstanding, nuclear power's incredible efficiency still makes it a promising candidate for interstellar travel.
Image via NASA
5 of 6
Antimatter is the exceedingly rare inverse of matter where electrons are positive and protons are negative, among other complex quantum quirks. When antimatter and matter come into contact, they are both annihilated, producing massive amounts of energy. During such a collision, the conversion of mass to energy is 100%. An astonishing number when compared to the next most efficient reaction, nuclear reactions, which have a mass-to-energy conversion of about 3%. NASA's concept for an antimatter rocket uses positrons (positive electrons) to superheat liquid hydrogen, which is expelled from a rocket to produce thrust. NASA estimates that 10 milligrams of positrons could be used to reach Mars in just 45 days. Antimatter is incredibly efficient and powerful, but there are significant problems with using it as a fuel source. For starters, it isn't an abundant resource. It can be made inside particle accelerators by smashing protons and electrons together, but just 10 milligrams for NASA's hypothetical Mars trip would cost a minimum of hundreds of millions of dollar. There's also the problem of containing the antimatter since it can't touch any matter without being destroyed. It is possible to store antimatter in electric or magnetic fields, but the longest anyone has done so is just 17 minutes. Still, if we can figure out how to create and harness antimatter, it could become the ideal fuel for space travel.
Image via Positronics Research, LLC/NASA
6 of 6
The Alcubierre Drive
Inspired by the warp drives of Star Trek, physicist Miguel Alcubierre wrote a paper in 1994 that outlined a possible warp drive that could get a spaceship to its destination faster than light without technically breaking any physical laws of the universe. Nothing with mass can move faster than the speed of light, but Alcubierre proposed that if you were to protect a ship inside of a bubble, then expand spacetime behind it and contract spacetime in front of it, the ship would be pushed and pulled along by spacetime itself. In this scenario, it's not the ship that's moving faster than light, but space itself, which is technically allowed within the laws of physics. Originally, it was believed that the drive would be impossible because the amount of energy required to warp spacetime would be more than all of the matter in the observable universe could produce, but Harold White, a physicist at NASA and optimistic proponent of the Alcubierre drive, says that it could be achieved with less than 1,000 kg of mass. Pictured is a design by White that proposes suspending a ship inside of a donut-shaped ring, which would generate the warp field more efficiently than an entire bubble. The Alcubierre drive is the ideal sci-fi spaceship, but, at the moment, it's more of a thought experiment than an actual working design for a spaceship. It'll likely be several centuries before we uncover the technology and science to make it possible, well within the timeframe that some of the other ships on this list could be built and flown to other star systems.
Image via NASA