Thursday, 23 February 2017

Comfortable Relativistic Space Travel: New paper on arXiv

I have written a new paper which has just come out on It has the somewhat long title of  "Relativistic minimization with constraints: A smooth trip to Alpha Centauri" and can be found here. My co-author on this paper was Riccardo Antonelli, who also writes a physics blog, called Hologrammata. It discusses and derives the most comfortable way to plan a relativistic journey, which may become relevant in several thousand years when we can actually go fast enough for this to matter.  In this post, I will explain what this paper is about and what inspired me to write it.

Artist's impression.

Every month, the American Journal of Physics puts out a new edition with about twenty articles. These are usually a delight to read and can be read by anyone with a basic physics background. Some of the articles are about physics education, but most of the research articles involve applications of established physics to problems nobody had quite thought of before. (This is where my tunnel-through-the-Earth paper is published).

In the October 2016 edition, I read an article called "The Least Uncomfortable Journey from A to B" (possible free version here) by three Swedish and possibly French researchers, Anderson, Desaix, and Nyqvist. In it, they ask the following question: on a linear trip taking time T from point A to point B separated by distance D, what is the trajectory (instantaneous velocity as a function of time or distance) that minimizes the  time-integrated squared acceleration? If you can't mentally convert that sentence into LaTeX, the "discomfort" here is the total acceleration that the passenger feels throughout the trip, pushing them into their seat on the first half of the trip, and thrusting them out of their seat on the second half.

The solution, which they find through Lagrangian-style variational calculus, turns out to be a trajectory with constant jerk, where the acceleration decreases linearly over the entire trip, such that the velocity is a quadratic function of time. A lot of the paper talks about various analytical approximation methods, and also computes an alternate "least uncomfortable" trajectory where the squared jerk is minimized instead of the squared acceleration.

The interesting thing about the solution is that there is only one. The relative velocity (v/vmax) as a function of the relative position (x/D) or time (t/T) does not actually depend on the distance or time. No matter how far or fast you want to go, there is only one set least-uncomfortable way to get there. However, there is a problem with this. If you want to calculate how to plan a train ride that covers 500 miles in an hour, the solution is fine. But if you want to plan a trip that goes from Earth to Jupiter in an hour, then it starts running into some problems. Although it wasn't stated in the paper, the solution only holds when D/T is  much less than the speed of light. I was curious about finding a relativistic solution to this problem, and if I get curious enough about a problem that is actually possible to solve, I can be quite persistent.

In the relativistic version of this problem, when you consider the integral over time of the squared acceleration, it matters in which reference frame the time and acceleration are being measured. Because we care about the comfort of travellers and not of stationary observers, we consider the proper acceleration and not the coordinate acceleration. This problem can be formulated either in terms of "lab" time or proper time on the ship, there are benefits to both. My first attempt at this essentially involved following Anderson et al.'s derivation except with a lot of extra Lorentz factors, which is generally not a good way to go about things, and I stalled pretty quickly.

Then one day, I was talking to my internet friend Riccardo, who had just finished his master's thesis in string theory and holography. I figured a lot of the relativistic analytical mechanics formalisms might still be fresh in his mind, so I mentioned the problem to him. He too found the problem interesting, and came to the realization that if the problem was formulated in terms of the rapidity (the hyperbolic tangent of velocity relative to c) since its derivative is proper acceleration, it could be expressed as a much neater problem than my "add a bunch of Lorentz factors" approach.

The way to derive the solution, Riccardo discovered, is to treat it as a Lagrangian function of the rapidity rather than the position (such that you write down L(r, $\dot{r}$, ) instead of L(x, $\dot{x}$) and apply the Euler-Lagrange to higher-order derivatives of position than normal). Even though we were unable to derive a closed-form solution, it turns out, the rapidity of the least uncomfortable solution evolves like a particle in a hyperbolic sine potential, and I was able to generate solutions using the Runge-Kutta algorithm, which has been serving me well since I learned how to use it in 2008.

As I said, there is only one classical solution, it is universal for all distances and times. However, when relativity it taken into account, the solution depends on how close to the speed of light it gets: there is now a single free parameter that characterizes the solution, and we can express it in terms of its maximum velocity, rapidity, or Lorentz factor. Our solution recovers the classical solution in the low-velocity limit (which is good, otherwise we'd be obviously wrong), but as the maximum speed increases, a greater fraction of the time is spent close to the maximum (which makes sense, as the path is some form of "accelerate close to light speed, decelerate down from close to light speed" and as you approach light speed, your velocity changes less and less)

A figure from the paper showing relative velocity as a function of relative time. The classical solution is the inner parabola with the car next to it, the solutions get faster as you go out, the fastest has a maximum Lorentz factor of 100 and is marked by a rocket. While making this figure I had a minor legal quandary about the copyright status of unicode emojis.

Now, we had solved the problem that I was inspired to solve, the relativistic version of Anderson et al.'s least uncomfortable journey. However, this whole thing may be moot for space travel: you don't necessarily want to keep acceleration to a minimum, instead you might want to contintually accelerate with Earth-like gravity for the first half of the trip, then reverse thrust and decelerate with Earth-like gravity for the second half, so that the entire ride (besides the switcheroo in the middle) feels like Earth. We calculated a trip like this to Alpha Centauri, which would take six years relative to Earth and 3.6 proper years on-board due to time dilation, reaching 95% light speed. With our solution, covering that distance in the same proper time would only reach 90% the speed of light, and might be more appropriate for sending mechanically sensitive electronic probes or self-replicating machines than it would be for sending people.

Anyway, we wrote up the paper and now it's online for the world's reading pleasure. It was fun seeing this paper go from a persistent idea to a finished product in a few weeks time, and dusting off some of the long-forgotten special relativity tools. It was a nice little collaboration with Riccardo, where I came up with the problem and he came up with the solution. This is the first random physics idea I've had in while that has actually come to fruition, and I hope there are many more to come.


  1. Nice. Btw, it's amazing how many people, including especially newscasters, say that it would take at least 40 years to get to the newly found Trappist 1 planets. They never think in terms of the travelers' time!

    How long would you say it would take, using your second scenario of maximizing earth like acceleration?

    1. 7.3 years, according to my calculations.

  2. Could you post the formula you used to calculate this? I was just wondering the same thing but quickly got intimidated by the calculus that I imagine would be involved.

    I am interested in the proper time experienced by the crew of a ship that can sustain 1g acceleration/deceleration for the entire trip.

    1. John Baez has a good page on that problem, found here:

      In short, the proper time with the +g/-g acceleration is (c/g)arcsinh(gt/c)

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