Hyperspace is not “Faster” Than Light

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… George Lucas envisioned a fantasy movie that incorporated everything from Flash Gordon and World War II footage to Errol Flynn swashbuckling and nuclear panic. As an idea man, Lucas was brilliant. Despite his scripts being rewritten multiple times to make them less… idiotic, he still came up with some fantastic concepts. The universe that is Star Wars is an icon that has lasted 40 years now. Still, though, there are some easily-understood misconceptions about the universe, and chief among these, at least for this post, is that the “jump to lightspeed” mentioned by Han Solo in the first Star Wars actually means “light speed”, or as we know it, “c”, the universal constant.

This has been handwaved by fans in non-canon writing before. They argue that hyperspace is only accessible by reaching the speed of light. Fair enough, but just as much of a cop-out as claiming that Han Solo made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs to Luke and Ben because they’re country bumpkins who don’t know the difference. I call BS, and so did the community on the latter, yet they twisted everything around on the former to still make it less of an uneducated boast. “Lightspeed” was just a common nomenclature for hyperspace. It had to be, and I’ll explain why.

First off, let’s try to understand why, exactly, C is not the speed at which anything in Star Wars travels. At C, light travels from our star, the Sun, to the planet Pluto, in a little over 5 hours. Our closest star, Proxima Centauri, would take us a year and a few months to reach at light speed. We are roughly in the middle of the galactic disk of our own galaxy, give or take a few thousand light years, of course. Yes, that discrepancy is really that unimportant here. Why? Because from Earth to the edge of the galaxy is in the neighborhood of 27,000 light years. At the speed of light, it would take someone more time to reach the edge of the galaxy than most of our classical metal “ages”.  That’s just to get there. Another entire massive technological revolution could happen on the trip back. You could have a civilization that moved from the stone age to the goddamn space age in the time it would take to just hang out in intergalactic space for a couple minutes and head home.

But what about Star Trek? Surely they’re fast! Well, yes. The Enterprise-era (we’re talking the show Enterprise here) Warp 5 was 200x the speed of light. That’s just over a minute and a half to Pluto (on average) after all! Our closest star would only be… just under 8 days away.  This is where the insane vastness of our galaxy starts to really hit hard. Our nearest neighbor in the galaxy is still over a week away even for radio transmission. Is the north star, Polaris more your speed? Strap in, because at the blazingly-fast speed of warp 5, it’s over 2 years away. 433.8 light years, specifically.  Warp 5 in Enterprise was a huge deal. They could finally visit nearby inhabited planets within a reasonable timeframe, maybe a couple weeks or even a few months. There are, after all, plenty of stars in that range. Thing is, Star Wars is a crapload faster.

I hate to do this, but I have to. The prequels are canon, and we all have to live with it, especially right now, because it gives further evidence of just how quickly hyperspace gets you from point A to point B. While the transit time between worlds is never really explicitly stated, it can be fairly assumed that they aren’t going on a year-long vacation from everything to travel from near the edge of The Galaxy to nearly the core. Why’s that, you may ask? Because that little shiny silver Naboo royal ship made the trip from Tattooine, an outer-rim planet, to Coruscant, which is a core world. Now, it’s largely understood that “core worlds” aren’t actually in the galactic core, but damn near it. Stuff in the core would be suffering some pretty insane effects from the supermassive black hole at the center, and it’s just too densely-populated for a planet to survive without some serious gravitational disturbances from its neighbors less than a lightyear away. Still, we’re probably talking in the neighborhood of 60,000 light years. That’s still a 3,000 year transit from Tattooine to Coruscant at warp 5.  I figured out how many times the speed of light this trip would take if they took their time and did it in 5 days. I doubt this, considering something I’ll hit on later, but let’s just say the Naboo imperial cruiser is a low rider and drives a little slower. This way Padme has time to do her Kubuki makeup and prepare her sour face for the Senate. This means that they’re traveling in the neighborhood of 4 million times the speed of light. So you know, this was figured by dividing 60,000 years (the time it takes light to travel from the core to the edge, minus about 5k) by 5 days. I love Google for this crap. Converting hyperspace to warp factor is ridiculous at this point, even by The New Generation standards, where you just add another 9 after the decimal to go faster. Warp 9.9999999? I don’t know; it’s insane. At these speeds, they’d be able to pop in and hang out with the Borg at their home planet in the Delta Quadrant and be home in time for the next episode of Quark’s Investment Tips. Warp 5 at this point feels like watching a snail make its way from LA to New York, with a hi-speed camera, let alone the time it would take you to make the same trip at “just” the speed of light.

But that’s not all. I wanted to bring these insane distances in to point out that if Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, and the gang (shut up, I know it’s their story, but they were in Droids for Chrissakes) were to travel so far beyond the galactic rim that they could see The Galaxy in its entirety at light speed, they’d basically have to freeze themselves in time for the trip and would return back to The Galaxy just in time to see the stars dying out. Completely different stars from the ones they’re used to, I might add. The ones they knew? Yeah, all went supernova and became new ones. Then those went supernova, and so on. Even time dilation doesn’t explain this incredible distance. Things go slower, internally, as you approach the speed of light. At best, they’d get to watch the spectacular destruction of billions of stars in their home galaxy in the rearview. At worst, they’d be dead before they got past the galactic rim. I’m really not sure what the factor is here, but I would assume that, being a constant, hitting C means you’re effectively frozen in time while the universe around you continues to move forward. Things break down pretty painfully as you approach the universal speed limit, and that’s why you don’t get to do that, dammit.

There will be those who say a hyperdrive with a rating of .5 is pretty fast, but would still take a few days are not taking into consideration the ridiculous fact that, well, the ending to Empire Strikes Back happened. This is where I have to disagree with virtually the entire internet, and I kinda like the feeling. The galaxy shown at the end of Empire is pretty strongly implied to be “The Galaxy”, the place where all the action so far has happened. No, it’s not some satellite galaxy or distant one you can get a pretty view of in the outer rim worlds. It’s the one where Jabba put a bounty on Han Solo’s head and Darth Vader sent a giant ball of pain to torture the princess. Without the EU to hinder the speculation on the movies anymore (as much as I loved the constant explanations of things), that’s the Star Wars galaxy right there. Try this sometime: Leave a town at night. Travel far enough away from that town for it to be just small enough to fit in your side window. Now, compare the distance you had to travel to get far enough from town to see it as basically a pretty decoration in the distance through your window. Compare it to going from one store to another while in town, in fact. Turn that comparison into light years and you have a slight idea of how much further even going from the edge of town to city hall is compared to moving from a core world to a rim world.

I know, I’m writing a lot here, but I really want to impress upon you the insane distances we’re talking about here. That trip from Tatooine to Coruscant, or even Alderaan is miniscule compared to the trip they took to see the entire galaxy in one window. I would try to figure out the multiplier of the speed of light, but I have a feeling I’d break math. Imagine a warp factor of 9.n, with n being the number of 9s that corresponds to the number of seconds between your birth and now. It’s probably still smaller than the equivalent of what hyperspace can travel at if the Skywalkers and folks can get that far away in a reasonable amount of time.

Really, though, Star Wars hyperspace is as fast as it needs to be for the plot. I get this. Great sci-fantasy always takes some serious liberties with the science part to tell an entertaining story. The point is, though, that hyperspace in Star Wars is damn-near infinite-speed. And all this from arguing that Luke and Leia would not be significantly different in age due to time dilation! The order of their birth would be more relevant than how fast they each traveled in hyperspace.

Screw relativity if it means a good story, in any case.

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