A Moment of Science

Zippy Aliens

Since time slows down the closer you get to the speed of light, if alien spaceships could travel at light speed, wouldn't they take longer to get places?

We received a letter from one of our readers with a question about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Since time slows down the closer you get to the speed of light, if alien spaceships could travel at light speed, wouldn’t they take longer to get places?

Well, nothing that starts at a lower speed can ever make it to light speed, but theoretically you can come as close as you want. So to keep things simple, let’s say the flying saucers move at just under light speed. Let’s also say that their planet, Zork, is a hundred light years from Earth. How long does it take them to get from Zork to Earth? Just over one hundred years.

Now here’s the tricky part. Since the aliens on board the ship traveled so fast relative to us, time slowed to a crawl for them relative to the way it passed for us on Earth. In a hundred years’ Earth time, the zippy aliens may have only aged a few seconds.

Notice, though, that there’s no going back. Their fellow aliens on Zork who didn’t take the near-light speed trip are all one hundred years older now, too! If our Zorkian visitors turned right around and flew home again, when they got there, they would find it was now two hundred years later.

If humanity ever does build such awesome ships, the fact that time slows down for near-light speed travelers won’t make the ships themselves go any faster or slower. It will, however, make it possible for explorers to go to distant stars in their own lifetimes–just not in the lifetimes of anyone they left behind.

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