Special Relativity: Physics at the Speed of Light

You awaken, and your mind clears. Yes, you are traveling on the inter-stellar freighter Hyperion, outbound to mine anti-matter from a galactic vortex. The automated systems have just revived you from suspended animation. Your assignment – perform periodic ship maintenance.

Climbing out of your hibernation chamber, you punch up system status. All systems read nominal, no issues. That is good. Your ship extends 30 kilometers. Just performing routine maintenance exhausts the mind and body; you don’t need any extra work.

You contemplate the task of the freighter. The Hyperion, and its three sister ships, fly in staggered missions to harvest energy, in the form of anti-matter. Each trip collects a million terawatt-hours, enough to support the 35 billion human and sentient robots in the solar system for a full year.

Looking up at the scanner screen, you see the mid-flight space buoy station about a light-hour ahead. The station contains four buoys, configured in a square, 30 kilometers on a side. A series of eleven stations keeps your ship on course during its two year travel out from Earth.

You check the freighter’s speed relative to the buoys – about 50 percent of the speed of light, but constant, i.e. no acceleration or deceleration. That makes sense – at mid-flight, the freighter has entered a transition phase between acceleration and deceleration.

The Theory of Relativity

Either through deliberate study, or general media coverage, you likely have heard of the Theory of Relativity, the master piece of Albert Einstein. Einstein built his theory in two phases. The first, Special Relativity, covered non-accelerating frames of reference, and the second, General Relativity, dealt with accelerating and gravity-bound frames of reference.

Special Relativity gave us the famous E=MC squared equation, and covers the physics of objects approaching the speed of light. General Relativity helped 筒燈 uncover the possibility of black holes, and provides the physics of objects in gravity fields or undergoing acceleration.

Here we will explore Special Relativity, using our hypothetical ship Hyperion. The freighter’s speed, a significant fraction of that of light, dictates we employ Special Relativity. Calculations based on the laws of motion at everyday speeds, for example those of planes and cars, would produce incorrect results.