How Does Light Travel Through Space? Facts & FAQ

Last Updated on Mar 15 2024

light as seen in space

Light is such a fundamental part of our lives. From the moment we’re born, we are showered with all kinds of electromagnetic radiation, both colorful, and invisible. Light travels through the vacuum of space at 186,828 miles per second as transverse waves , outside of any material or medium, because photons—the particles that make up light—also behave as waves. This is referred to as the wave-particle duality of light.  

  • What Is Light?

The wave-particle duality of light simply means that light behaves as both waves and particles . Although this has been long accepted as fact, scientists only managed to observe both these properties of light ¹ simultaneously for the first time in 2015.

As a wave, light is electromagnetic radiation—vibrations, or oscillations, of the electric and magnetic fields. As particles, light is made up of little massless packets of energy called photons ¹ .

  • What Are Light Waves?

Waves are the transference of energy from one point to another. If we dropped a pebble into a small pond, the energy that the impact creates would transfer as a ripple, or a wave, that travels through the surface of the water, from one water particle to another, until eventually reaching the edge of the pond.

This is also how sound waves work—except that, with sound, it’s the pressure or vibrations of particles in the air that eventually reach our ears.

Unlike water and sound, light itself is electromagnetic radiation—or light waves—so it doesn’t need a medium to travel through.

  • What Are Transverse Waves?

Light propagates through transverse waves. Transverse waves refer to a way in which energy is transferred.

Transverse waves oscillate at a 90-degree angle (or right angle) to the direction the energy is traveling in. An easy way to picture this is to imagine an S shape flipped onto its side. The waves would be going up and down, while the energy would be moving either left or right.

With light waves ¹ , there are 2 oscillations to consider. If the light wave is traveling on the X axis, then the oscillations of the electric field would be at a right angle, either along the Y or Z axes, and the oscillations of the magnetic field would be on the other.

  • Can Anything Travel Faster Than Light?

The simple answer to this question is no, as far as we know at this time, nothing can go faster than the speed of light ¹ . Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity states that “no known object can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.”

Space and time don’t yet exist beyond the speed of light—if we were to travel that fast, the closer we get to the speed of light, the more our spatial dimension would shrink, until eventually collapsing.

Beyond this, the laws of physics state that as an object approaches the speed of light , its mass would become infinite, and so would the energy it would need to propel it. Since it’s probably impossible to create an infinite amount of energy, it would be difficult for anything to travel faster than light.

Tachyon, a hypothetical particle, is said to travel faster than the speed of light. However, because its speed would not be consistent with the known laws of physics, physicists believe that tachyon particles do not exist.

  • Final Thoughts

Light travels through space as transverse, electromagnetic waves. Its wave-particle duality means that it behaves as both particles and waves. As far as we know, nothing in the world travels as fast as light.

  • https://phys.org/news/2015-03-particle.html
  • https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms7407
  • https://www.wtamu.edu/~cbaird/sq/2017/07/20/is-the-reason-that-nothing-can-go-faster-than-light-because-we-have-not-tried-hard-enough/
  • https://www.physics.brocku.ca/PPLATO/h-flap/phys6_1f_1.png
  • https://science.nasa.gov/ems/02_anatomy

Featured Image Credit: NASA, Unsplash

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About the Author Cheryl Regan

Cheryl is a freelance content and copywriter from the United Kingdom. Her interests include hiking and amateur astronomy but focuses her writing on gardening and photography. If she isn't writing she can be found curled up with a coffee and her pet cat.

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What is the speed of light? Here’s the history, discovery of the cosmic speed limit

Time travel is one of the most intriguing topics in science.

On one hand, the speed of light is just a number: 299,792,458 meters per second. And on the other, it’s one of the most important constants that appears in nature and defines the relationship of causality itself.

As far as we can measure, it is a constant. It is the same speed for every observer in the entire universe. This constancy was first established in the late 1800’s with the experiments of Albert Michelson and Edward Morley at Case Western Reserve University . They attempted to measure changes in the speed of light as the Earth orbited around the Sun. They found no such variation, and no experiment ever since then has either.

Observations of the cosmic microwave background, the light released when the universe was 380,000 years old, show that the speed of light hasn’t measurably changed in over 13.8 billion years.

In fact, we now define the speed of light to be a constant, with a precise speed of 299,792,458 meters per second. While it remains a remote possibility in deeply theoretical physics that light may not be a constant, for all known purposes it is a constant, so it’s better to just define it and move on with life.

How was the speed of light first measured?

In 1676 the Danish astronomer Ole Christensen Romer made the first quantitative measurement of how fast light travels. He carefully observed the orbit of Io, the innermost moon of Jupiter. As the Earth circles the Sun in its own orbit, sometimes it approaches Jupiter and sometimes it recedes away from it. When the Earth is approaching Jupiter, the path that light has to travel from Io is shorter than when the Earth is receding away from Jupiter. By carefully measuring the changes to Io’s orbital period, Romer calculated a speed of light of around 220,000 kilometers per second.

Observations continued to improve until by the 19 th century astronomers and physicists had developed the sophistication to get very close to the modern value. In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell made a remarkable discovery. He was investigating the properties of electricity and magnetism, which for decades had remained mysterious in unconnected laboratory experiments around the world. Maxwell found that electricity and magnetism were really two sides of the same coin, both manifestations of a single electromagnetic force.

James Clerk Maxwell contributed greatly to the discover of the speed of light.

As Maxwell explored the consequences of his new theory, he found that changing magnetic fields can lead to changing electric fields, which then lead to a new round of changing magnetic fields. The fields leapfrog over each other and can even travel through empty space. When Maxwell went to calculate the speed of these electromagnetic waves, he was surprised to see the speed of light pop out – the first theoretical calculation of this important number.

What is the most precise measurement of the speed of light?

Because it is defined to be a constant, there’s no need to measure it further. The number we’ve defined is it, with no uncertainty, no error bars. It’s done. But the speed of light is just that – a speed. The number we choose to represent it depends on the units we use: kilometers versus miles, seconds versus hours, and so on. In fact, physicists commonly just set the speed of light to be 1 to make their calculations easier. So instead of trying to measure the speed light travels, physicists turn to more precisely measuring other units, like the length of the meter or the duration of the second. In other words, the defined value of the speed of light is used to establish the length of other units like the meter.

How does light slow down?

Yes, the speed of light is always a constant. But it slows down whenever it travels through a medium like air or water. How does this work? There are a few different ways to present an answer to this question, depending on whether you prefer a particle-like picture or a wave-like picture.

In a particle-like picture, light is made of tiny little bullets called photons. All those photons always travel at the speed of light, but as light passes through a medium those photons get all tangled up, bouncing around among all the molecules of the medium. This slows down the overall propagation of light, because it takes more time for the group of photons to make it through.

In a wave-like picture, light is made of electromagnetic waves. When these waves pass through a medium, they get all the charged particles in motion, which in turn generate new electromagnetic waves of their own. These interfere with the original light, forcing it to slow down as it passes through.

Either way, light always travels at the same speed, but matter can interfere with its travel, making it slow down.

Why is the speed of light important?

The speed of light is important because it’s about way more than, well, the speed of light. In the early 1900’s Einstein realized just how special this speed is. The old physics, dominated by the work of Isaac Newton, said that the universe had a fixed reference frame from which we could measure all motion. This is why Michelson and Morley went looking for changes in the speed, because it should change depending on our point of view. But their experiments showed that the speed was always constant, so what gives?

Einstein decided to take this experiment at face value. He assumed that the speed of light is a true, fundamental constant. No matter where you are, no matter how fast you’re moving, you’ll always see the same speed.

This is wild to think about. If you’re traveling at 99% the speed of light and turn on a flashlight, the beam will race ahead of you at…exactly the speed of light, no more, no less. If you’re coming from the opposite direction, you’ll still also measure the exact same speed.

This constancy forms the basis of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which tells us that while all motion is relative – different observers won’t always agree on the length of measurements or the duration of events – some things are truly universal, like the speed of light.

Can you go faster than light speed?

Nope. Nothing can. Any particle with zero mass must travel at light speed. But anything with mass (which is most of the universe) cannot. The problem is relativity. The faster you go, the more energy you have. But we know from Einstein’s relativity that energy and mass are the same thing. So the more energy you have, the more mass you have, which makes it harder for you to go even faster. You can get as close as you want to the speed of light, but to actually crack that barrier takes an infinite amount of energy. So don’t even try.

How is the speed at which light travels related to causality?

If you think you can find a cheat to get around the limitations of light speed, then I need to tell you about its role in special relativity. You see, it’s not just about light. It just so happens that light travels at this special speed, and it was the first thing we discovered to travel at this speed. So it could have had another name. Indeed, a better name for this speed might be “the speed of time.”

Related: Is time travel possible? An astrophysicist explains

We live in a universe of causes and effects. All effects are preceded by a cause, and all causes lead to effects. The speed of light limits how quickly causes can lead to effects. Because it’s a maximum speed limit for any motion or interaction, in a given amount of time there’s a limit to what I can influence. If I want to tap you on the shoulder and you’re right next to me, I can do it right away. But if you’re on the other side of the planet, I have to travel there first. The motion of me traveling to you is limited by the speed of light, so that sets how quickly I can tap you on the shoulder – the speed light travels dictates how quickly a single cause can create an effect.

The ability to go faster than light would allow effects to happen before their causes. In essence, time travel into the past would be possible with faster-than-light travel. Since we view time as the unbroken chain of causes and effects going from the past to the future, breaking the speed of light would break causality, which would seriously undermine our sense of the forward motion of time.

Why does light travel at this speed?

No clue. It appears to us as a fundamental constant of nature. We have no theory of physics that explains its existence or why it has the value that it does. We hope that a future understanding of nature will provide this explanation, but right now all investigations are purely theoretical. For now, we just have to take it as a given.

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A Journey of Light through Space and Time

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Physics Fox

How Light moves through Space

A light introduction the law of reflection.

  • Light always moves through space in a straight line . This is easiest to see with a ray box or a laser.

what does light travel through in space

  • Light is the fastest thing in the universe when moving through empty space (aka. a vacuum ).

Straight lines

I'm travelling at the speed of light I wanna make a supersonic woman of you

How does light move through space? Can it travel whatever path it feels like?

what does light travel through in space

Not quite — in fact there's a law that describes this:

what does light travel through in space

If light didn't move in a straight line, you'd be able to see round corners!

Most luminous objects emit light in all directions , but this is still only in straight lines. We can check this by blocking almost all the light from bulb, apart from a small slit. This contraption is called a ray box.

what does light travel through in space

Shadows are also an example of light moving in a straight line. A shadow is simply a region where light doesn't reach (because something's in the way). If you trace the line between a light source, the edge of an object, and the edge of its shadow, you will always get a straight line.

what does light travel through in space

The speed of light

Anything that travels must have a speed . A car might travel at 60 miles per hour, or a plane might fly at 600 miles per hour.

what does light travel through in space

A rocket can travel at 6000 miles per hour.

what does light travel through in space

The Earth moves round the sun at 67,000 miles per hour.

what does light travel through in space

This seems very fast, but it pales in comparison to the speed of light. Light travels at 670,000,000 miles per hour (= 300,000,000 m/s ).

what does light travel through in space

This is outrageously fast. In fact, it's so fast that nothing else can keep up — light is the fastest thing in the universe .

Here's something to put that speed into perspective: It takes light just 1 second to reach the moon from Earth, whereas it would take a jumbo jet over 15 days (if planes could fly through space). That's over a million times longer!

Technically, light only moves at this speed when travelling through empty space (also known as a vacuum ). Light travels slower (although still incredibly quickly) when moving though materials, such as glass and water.

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what does light travel through in space

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what does light travel through in space

How Does Light Travel?

Ever since Democritus – a Greek philosopher who lived between the 5th and 4th century’s BCE – argued that all of existence was made up of tiny indivisible atoms, scientists have been speculating as to the true nature of light. Whereas scientists ventured back and forth between the notion that light was a particle or a wave until the modern era, the 20th century led to breakthroughs that showed us that it behaves as both.

These included the discovery of the electron, the development of quantum theory, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity . However, there remains many unanswered questions about light, many of which arise from its dual nature. For instance, how is it that light can be apparently without mass, but still behave as a particle? And how can it behave like a wave and pass through a vacuum, when all other waves require a medium to propagate?

Theory of Light to the 19th Century:

During the Scientific Revolution, scientists began moving away from Aristotelian scientific theories that had been seen as accepted canon for centuries. This included rejecting Aristotle’s theory of light, which viewed it as being a disturbance in the air (one of his four “elements” that composed matter), and embracing the more mechanistic view that light was composed of indivisible atoms.

In many ways, this theory had been previewed by atomists of Classical Antiquity – such as Democritus and Lucretius – both of whom viewed light as a unit of matter given off by the sun. By the 17th century, several scientists emerged who accepted this view, stating that light was made up of discrete particles (or “corpuscles”). This included Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and most famously, Sir Isaac Newton .

The first edition of Newton's Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light (1704). Credit: Public Domain.

Newton’s corpuscular theory was an elaboration of his view of reality as an interaction of material points through forces. This theory would remain the accepted scientific view for more than 100 years, the principles of which were explained in his 1704 treatise “ Opticks, or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections, and Colours of Light “. According to Newton, the principles of light could be summed as follows:

  • Every source of light emits large numbers of tiny particles known as corpuscles in a medium surrounding the source.
  • These corpuscles are perfectly elastic, rigid, and weightless.

This represented a challenge to “wave theory”, which had been advocated by 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens . . These theories were first communicated in 1678 to the Paris Academy of Sciences and were published in 1690 in his “ Traité de la lumière “ (“ Treatise on Light “). In it, he argued a revised version of Descartes views, in which the speed of light is infinite and propagated by means of spherical waves emitted along the wave front.

Double-Slit Experiment:

By the early 19th century, scientists began to break with corpuscular theory. This was due in part to the fact that corpuscular theory failed to adequately explain the diffraction, interference and polarization of light, but was also because of various experiments that seemed to confirm the still-competing view that light behaved as a wave.

The most famous of these was arguably the Double-Slit Experiment , which was originally conducted by English polymath Thomas Young in 1801 (though Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have conducted something similar in his own time). In Young’s version of the experiment, he used a slip of paper with slits cut into it, and then pointed a light source at them to measure how light passed through it.

According to classical (i.e. Newtonian) particle theory, the results of the experiment should have corresponded to the slits, the impacts on the screen appearing in two vertical lines. Instead, the results showed that the coherent beams of light were interfering, creating a pattern of bright and dark bands on the screen. This contradicted classical particle theory, in which particles do not interfere with each other, but merely collide.

The only possible explanation for this pattern of interference was that the light beams were in fact behaving as waves. Thus, this experiment dispelled the notion that light consisted of corpuscles and played a vital part in the acceptance of the wave theory of light. However subsequent research, involving the discovery of the electron and electromagnetic radiation, would lead to scientists considering yet again that light behaved as a particle too, thus giving rise to wave-particle duality theory.

Electromagnetism and Special Relativity:

Prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, the speed of light had already been determined. The first recorded measurements were performed by Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, who demonstrated in 1676 using light measurements from Jupiter’s moon Io to show that light travels at a finite speed (rather than instantaneously).

Prof. Albert Einstein uses the blackboard as he delivers the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the auditorium of the Carnegie Institue of Technology Little Theater at Pittsburgh, Pa., on Dec. 28, 1934. Using three symbols, for matter, energy and the speed of light respectively, Einstein offers additional proof of a theorem propounded by him in 1905 that matter and energy are the same thing in different forms. (AP Photo)

By the late 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and devised several equations (known as Maxwell’s equations ) to describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents. By conducting measurements of different types of radiation (magnetic fields, ultraviolet and infrared radiation), he was able to calculate the speed of light in a vacuum (represented as c ).

In 1905, Albert Einstein published “ On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies ”, in which he advanced one of his most famous theories and overturned centuries of accepted notions and orthodoxies. In his paper, he postulated that the speed of light was the same in all inertial reference frames, regardless of the motion of the light source or the position of the observer.

Exploring the consequences of this theory is what led him to propose his theory of Special Relativity , which reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, simplified the mathematical calculations, and accorded with the directly observed speed of light and accounted for the observed aberrations. It also demonstrated that the speed of light had relevance outside the context of light and electromagnetism.

For one, it introduced the idea that major changes occur when things move close the speed of light, including the time-space frame of a moving body appearing to slow down and contract in the direction of motion when measured in the frame of the observer. After centuries of increasingly precise measurements, the speed of light was determined to be 299,792,458 m/s in 1975.

Einstein and the Photon:

In 1905, Einstein also helped to resolve a great deal of confusion surrounding the behavior of electromagnetic radiation when he proposed that electrons are emitted from atoms when they absorb energy from light. Known as the photoelectric effect , Einstein based his idea on Planck’s earlier work with “black bodies” – materials that absorb electromagnetic energy instead of reflecting it (i.e. white bodies).

At the time, Einstein’s photoelectric effect was attempt to explain the “black body problem”, in which a black body emits electromagnetic radiation due to the object’s heat. This was a persistent problem in the world of physics, arising from the discovery of the electron, which had only happened eight years previous (thanks to British physicists led by J.J. Thompson and experiments using cathode ray tubes ).

At the time, scientists still believed that electromagnetic energy behaved as a wave, and were therefore hoping to be able to explain it in terms of classical physics. Einstein’s explanation represented a break with this, asserting that electromagnetic radiation behaved in ways that were consistent with a particle – a quantized form of light which he named “photons”. For this discovery, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921.

Wave-Particle Duality:

Subsequent theories on the behavior of light would further refine this idea, which included French physicist Louis-Victor de Broglie calculating the wavelength at which light functioned. This was followed by Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” (which stated that measuring the position of a photon accurately would disturb measurements of it momentum and vice versa), and Schrödinger’s paradox that claimed that all particles have a “wave function”.

In accordance with quantum mechanical explanation, Schrodinger proposed that all the information about a particle (in this case, a photon) is encoded in its wave function , a complex-valued function roughly analogous to the amplitude of a wave at each point in space. At some location, the measurement of the wave function will randomly “collapse”, or rather “decohere”, to a sharply peaked function. This was illustrated in Schrödinger famous paradox involving a closed box, a cat, and a vial of poison (known as the “ Schrödinger Cat” paradox).

In this illustration, one photon (purple) carries a million times the energy of another (yellow). Some theorists predict travel delays for higher-energy photons, which interact more strongly with the proposed frothy nature of space-time. Yet Fermi data on two photons from a gamma-ray burst fail to show this effect. The animation below shows the delay scientists had expected to observe. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

According to his theory, wave function also evolves according to a differential equation (aka. the Schrödinger equation ). For particles with mass, this equation has solutions; but for particles with no mass, no solution existed. Further experiments involving the Double-Slit Experiment confirmed the dual nature of photons. where measuring devices were incorporated to observe the photons as they passed through the slits.

When this was done, the photons appeared in the form of particles and their impacts on the screen corresponded to the slits – tiny particle-sized spots distributed in straight vertical lines. By placing an observation device in place, the wave function of the photons collapsed and the light behaved as classical particles once more. As predicted by Schrödinger, this could only be resolved by claiming that light has a wave function, and that observing it causes the range of behavioral possibilities to collapse to the point where its behavior becomes predictable.

The development of Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was devised in the following decades to resolve much of the ambiguity around wave-particle duality. And in time, this theory was shown to apply to other particles and fundamental forces of interaction (such as weak and strong nuclear forces). Today, photons are part of the Standard Model of particle physics, where they are classified as boson – a class of subatomic particles that are force carriers and have no mass.

So how does light travel? Basically, traveling at incredible speeds (299 792 458 m/s) and at different wavelengths, depending on its energy. It also behaves as both a wave and a particle, able to propagate through mediums (like air and water) as well as space. It has no mass, but can still be absorbed, reflected, or refracted if it comes in contact with a medium. And in the end, the only thing that can truly divert it, or arrest it, is gravity (i.e. a black hole).

What we have learned about light and electromagnetism has been intrinsic to the revolution which took place in physics in the early 20th century, a revolution that we have been grappling with ever since. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, we have learned much, but still have much to learn.

For instance, its interaction with gravity (along with weak and strong nuclear forces) remains a mystery. Unlocking this, and thus discovering a Theory of Everything (ToE) is something astronomers and physicists look forward to. Someday, we just might have it all figured out!

We have written many articles about light here at Universe Today. For example, here’s How Fast is the Speed of Light? , How Far is a Light Year? , What is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

If you’d like more info on light, check out these articles from The Physics Hypertextbook and NASA’s Mission Science page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel .

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56 Replies to “How Does Light Travel?”

“HOW DOES LIGHT TRAVEL?”

it travels lightly. 😀

Light doesn’t exist. This is an observation from light’s point of view and not ours. Traveling at the speed of (wait for it) light, absolutely no time passes between leaving it’s source and reaching it’s destination for the photon. This means, to the photon hitting your retina, it is also still on that star you are observing 10 light years away. How is this possible? Maybe John Wheeler was right when he told Richard Feynman that there is only one electron in the universe and it travels forward in time as an electron, then back in time as a positron and every electron we see is the same electron.

MY QUESTION IS: Whether light is a wave , particle or both.. where does it get the energy to move through space/time. In other words is the energy of light infinite? Does it continue on without lose of energy…..forever…….

I believe that Special Relativity says that the energy of light is infinite due to the very fact it has no mass. E=MC^2

In reverse, this is also why something with mass to begin with. If accelerated toward the speed of light, will see their mass and gravity increase to infinite points as they near relativistic speed (it actually starts around 95% with a steep upward curve from there), with a relative slowing to a stop of time.

Join the discussion

Light and the universe are only illusions that are formed in our minds via technology that sends information from the simulation program we’re living in. That information comes in the form of invisible wavelengths that includes wavelengths that we perceive as light. The visible retinas in our eyes are like tiny video screens where these particles are arranged into patterns that form into all the various objects we think are real objects. This information is also converted into thoughts within our minds which are like computer processors that process that information.

We are living in a computer simulation that is much more advanced than anything the characters in the program have built according to the information called the Beast.

Brad,…So You’re suggesting that “life” as we know and call it “is some kind of retro-virus” or “bio-intelligent format” heaped upon a perceived “set of accepted data sets” that are not in sync with each other in most cases with exception to Math 94% of the time….Even then it can vary which suggests Your idea would mean we all live in a fairy tale. That is what you suggest,…right?……

Brad has watched the Matrix too many times.

Correction: Even gravity doesn’t slow light down. Light (EM radiation of any wavelength) always travels at speed c, relative to any local inertial (Lorentz) frame. It could also be noted that the wavelength of an EM wave is not a characteristic of that wave alone; it also depends on the state of motion of the observer. You might even say, “One man’s radio wave is another man’s gamma ray.”

Light actually “slows down” every time it has to travel through anything but a vacuum. Look up Cherenkov radiation to see what happens when light initially travels faster than it can through a particular substance, like water. Light speed is not constant when traveling through any medium except pure vacuum. In fact that is why your pencil looks bent when you drop it in a glass of water. Light bends to find it’s fastest path through any medium, and it slows down in that medium.

if all you scientist could ever get it in your pie brain that there is no time, no light speed, no warping space, no black holes for the purpose of moving through space quickly, no smallest no biggest when it comes to space and that all of everything has always been in existence but not necessarily as it is now. you will never find the smallest because if it exist it has an inside, and you will never find the end of space because it is infinite.

What are you smoking?

The article started out nicely, but I lost interest as mistakes began to appear. First Einstein did not “propose” the photoelectric effect. The photoelectric effect was first observed by Heinrich Hertz in 1887. Einstein used the idea of photons to explain the photoelectric effect and derive the photoelectric equation. Also, Max Plank had already derived the blackbody distribution, by assuming that electromagnetic energy of frequency f could only be emitted in multiples of energy E=hf, by 1900. Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect was published in his “miracle” year of 1905. The photoelectric effect has nothing to do with black body radiation.

Einstein did not coin the name “photons” for light quanta, as stated in this article. This term was first used by Arthur Compton in 1928.

I have to say that I do not know what the author of the article means when he says ” calculating the wavelength at which light functioned” in reference to Louis-Victor de Broglie. Louis de Broglie used the dual nature of light to suggest that electrons, previously thought of as particles, also had wave characteristics and used this notion to explain the Bohr orbits in the hydrogen atom.

I gave up on the article after seeing these errors. I’m afraid I have a low tolerance for sloppy writing.

Oh, it’s BCE now, “Before the Common Era” BC has worked for 2000 years but now the PC police have stepped in so as not to offend who? Some Muslims?

mecheng1, you must be very young. BCE has been in used in academia for decades. It’s nothing “new”, just out of your circle of knowledge.

Decades??? Really?? How does that compare to 2000 years?

Only in Euro-centric texts have your assertions been true, McCowen. The rest of the world not influenced by Christianity have used their own calendars and a “0” year or a “year 1” from which to reckon the passage of time, largely based on their own religions or celestial observations.

Over the last century or so, through commerce, most of the world has generally accepted the use of a Western calendar (or use it along with their own for domestic purposes, like we here in the US still use Imperial units of measure that have to be converted to metric for international commerce). So, we are in a “common era” insofar as non-Christian societies are incorporating the Gregorian Calendar and the generally-accepted “year 1” established by that calendar (which is supposed to be the year of Jesus’s birth, but it probably isn’t according to current scholarship). Besides, the Gregorian calendar is an improved derivative of the Roman calendar – even the names of the months come from the Romans.

In short, it is more accurate, as well as respectful, to go with BCE in these global times.

Where is the information carried on a photon hitting my eye(s), or cluster/group/pack of photons hitting my eyes(s), that I see as other distant galaxies and planets going around stars?

That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Even in scattering, light remains coherent enough to convey an enormous amount of information.

Since the miniscule equal masses with opposite charges, that make up the photon structure, interact at 90 degrees, this induces a spin (a finding from the 80’s by the LANL plasma physics program) which creates a centrifugal force that counterbalances the charge attraction of the opposite charges. This establishes a stable structure for energies less than 1.0216 MeV, the pair-formation threshold, separating these “neutrino” sub-components by a specific distance providing wavelengths varying with photon energy. This composite photon propagates transversely at c/n, the speed of light divided by the index of refraction of the material traversed. In spite of the mass being defined as zero, for convenience in calculating atomic masses, there is actually an infinitesimal but non-zero mass for the photon that is required for calculations that describe its properties.

Tim, you poor guy! You have a discombobulated brain! Everything you wrote is just gibberish.

i would like to know the temperature in a black hole…maybe absolute zero? is absolute zero the moment that time stop?

I think the temp inside a black hole would be extremely high since temperature seems to increase with mass. Comparing absolute zero to time stopping is very interesting though. To the observer they would appear the same.

Theoretically there is no temperature in a black hole from any observer POV because time is stopped. Although JALNIN does bring up that point, and he also brings up the point of increasing mass corresponding to increasing energy. Everything in Hawking and Einstein’s equations though, suggest that any energy would be absorbed back by the singularity, so there wouldn’t be any heat. In fact it should be infinitely cold. But time is no more, so technically no heat or energy is emitted anyway from any observers POV. Yet recent images of black holes from Chandra show that they emit powerful Gamma Jets along their spin axis just like Neutron stars, and Pulsars. BTW edison. The accretion disk can reach temperatures of 20MN Kelvin on a feeding SM black hole (quasar). NASA just published an article on it through the Chandra feed a while back.

Light doesn’t travel, it just IS. It is we, the condensed matter, that travels, through time.

Oh really? Is this just your imagination/illusion or you have published a paper on it?

So you don’t believe you travel through time?

I wish I understood just a portion of I just read, love sicence so bad BUT, sighs

It would be easier to understand if it wasn’t pure gibberish written by someone with no science background.

I have two “mind-bending relativity side effects” to share. At least they are mind-bending to me.

1) Light travels the same speed relative to all particles of mass, regardless of how those particles move relative to each other:

I can conceptualize this if we are only talking about two mass-particles/observers and the examples I’ve seen always involve only two observers. But if you have many mass-particles/observers, how does the space-time seem to know to adjust differently for all of them. I am sure i am understanding this correctly as it is a basic concept of special relativity and nobody seems to bring this issue up. But it “bends my mind” when i try to include more than two observers. Maybe you can help.

2) General Relativity’s (“GR”) prediction that the big bang started with “Infinite” energy and now the universe appears to have finite mass energy and Regarding the first effect: How can something infinite turn into something finite? Is the answer that at that early in the universe, quantum takes over and GR’s prediction of infinite mass-energy at the start of the universe is just wrong?

I need to correct a typo in my previous comment. Where i say “i am sure am understanding this correctly” I meant to include the word NOT. so it should read “i am sure am NOT understanding this correctly” Mark L.

Mark,….I think you’re understanding it just fine from the standpoint of multiple observers, The point might be that in space, the density of “emptiness” or “lack of emptiness” might be impacted from one area of observation to another by an observer who’s perceptions are not equal but not being taken into consideration by each observer. ( an example if I may?) If you were to use a Clear medium which is oil based beginning with 5 gallons of mineral spirits in a large barrel and keep adding 5 gallons of thicker clear oil and then heavy grease and stop with using a clear heavy wax,…what happens is you end up with a barrel of clear fluid that begins with a floating substrate but the liquid begins to keep floating and the heaviest stuff goes to the bottom,…You end up with a sort of solid tube of clear fluids which if you could keep them in shape here on the earth, “you could observe them” from several positions, #1. the fluid end #2, the less fluid part, #3, the semi solid part #4. the seemingly solid part #5. the almost solid part & #6. the solid part……all of which would be transparent….You could then shine a laser through all of it and perhaps do that again from different places and see what happens at different angles…..I think what happens as a result would be, an observer would end up be influenced as per his or her ideas thusly because of the quasi-nature of what the density of space is at the point of space is where the observation is made. just a guess.

All Special Relativity really says about light is that it appears to move at the same rate from any observer POV. There are other more advanced rules relating to light speeds. One of them is the implication of infinite energy in a photon because of the fact it’s mass-less, therefore it can move at the maximum rate a mass-less particle or wave can (not necessarily that it does) Later when the electron was discovered (also mass-less particle or wave), it was also found to conform to the rules of special relativity.

As far as the big bang, there are a lot of cracks in that theory, and many different ones are beginning to dispute some of the common ideas behind the “Big Bang” as well as “Inflationary Cosmology”. Honestly though, both standard and quantum physics applied, and yet both went out the window at the same time at some point. That’s what all the theories really say. At some point, everything we know or think we know was bunk, because the math just breaks down, and doesn’t work right anymore.

i think until there is an understanding of the actual “fabric” of space itself, the wave vs particle confusion will continue. another interesting article recently was the half integer values of rotating light. planck’s constant was broken? gravity? a bump in the data? lol these are interesting times.

There’s no fabric.

Tesla insists there is an aether, Einstein says not. Tesla enjoyed far less trial and error than Einstein. The vast majority of Tesla’s projects worked the first time around and required no development or experimentation. I’ll go with Tesla; there is an aether as a fabric of space.

http://weinsteinsletter.weebly.com/aether.html

Maybe Special Relativity is not correct? 🙂

Feynman said unequivocally that QED is NOT a wave theory. In fact, the math only looks like Maxwell’s wave function when you are looking at a single particle at a time, but the analogy breaks down as soon as you start looking at the interactions of more than one, which is the real case. There’s no light acting alone, but always an interaction between a photon and some other particle, an electron, another photon, or whatever. He said “light is particles.” So the question re: how can light travel through a vacuum if it’s waves is a nonsensical question. There are no collapsing wave functions in light. There’s only probabilities of position that look like waves on a freaking piece of paper. Even calling light properties as “wavelengths” is nonsensical. Light comes in frequencies, i.e., the number of particles traveling tightly together. Higher frequency is more energy because it’s more particles (E=MC[squared]). “Wavicles” is pure bullshit.

I don’t agree with the John Wheeler theory that there is only one electron since the computer I am using was built by ion implantation and uses a very large number of them simultaneously to function.

Black holes don’t stop or slow light, if they even exist. A black hole could phase shift light, which is why we see things emitting xrays and call them black holes….but they could be something else too.

Photons have no mass but they do have energy. Energy and mass are transformable into each other. Gravity works on energy as well as mass. As massive particles approach the speed of light their measurable mass increases to infinity. But since energy is equivalent to mass, why doesn’t the photon, which has energy, not seem to have infinite mass?

NO other wave travels thru a vacuum? what about radio?

Radio waves are a specific frequency range of light.

Technically speaking, radio waves are emitted at various frequencies that share the same space time as light. They are not however light. They’re modulated electrons. Modulated photons certainly can be used to carry a vast amount of information a great distance. It cannot do it any faster or better than a radio wave though. Both electrons and photons are mass-less, therefore they both conform to the rules of Special Relativity in the same way. Both travel at the speed of light.

I just don’t understand is it a particle of a wave? It seems like it behaves like wave and sometimes like particle and in some situations is like a what ever you are going to call it.

So, the logical idea would to have formula Photon_influence * weight_for_particle + Wave_influence * weight_for_wave

Make it more compact.

This article is good but the title is bad as by the end we still weren’t told how light travels through space. Also, there are some historical mistakes as already pointed out. Now for my contribution: I think that light and Gravity have a lot in common; for one – an atom’s electrons transmit light and an atom contains the tiny heavy place that knows everything there is to know about gravity, that is, the nucleus. Light and Gravity are both related to the same entity, the atom. Unfortunately, we, still cannot grasp how what’s heavy brings about gravitation. For those of you with a creed for new ideas go to: https://www.academia.edu/10785615/Gravity_is_emergent It’s a hypothesis…

Gravity and light are infinite, like space and time… Mind the concept that there are waves within waves, motions within motion, vibrations within vibration, endless overtones and universal harmony…

From this article, I have “And in the end, the only thing that can truly slow down or arrest the speed of light is gravity”

Doesn’t light slow down in water and glass and other mediums. I was only a Physics minor, but I do remember coivering this though way back in the early 80’s. And in my quick checking online, I found the following.

“Light travels at approximately 300,000 kilometers per second in a vacuum, which has a refractive index of 1.0, but it slows down to 225,000 kilometers per second in water (refractive index = 1.3; see Figure 1) and 200,000 kilometers per second in glass (refractive index of 1.5).”

Were they saying something else here. I did like the article.

Photons are not massless, but their mass is incredibly small even compared to a proton or neutron. So, by Einstein’s E=MC^2, the energy required for a photon to move is greatly reduced, but photons do have mass and are affected by gravity. If photons had no mass at all, then gravity would have no affect on them, but gravity does. Gravity bends light and can change it’s course through space. We see that in the actual test first performed to prove Einstein’s theory buy observing the distorted placement of stars as their light passes near the sun observed during an eclipse. We can also see it through gravitational lensing when viewing deeps space objects. And the fact that there are black holes that are black because light cannot escape it’s gravity. So photons do have mass, be it miniscule, and with that their propagation with light waves through space will eventually run out of energy and stop. but this would probably require distances greater to several widths of our universe to accomplish. Light from the furthest reaches of the universe are not as bright, or as energetic, as they are at anyplace between here and their origins. That reduction in their energy is also attributed to Einstein’s equation and the inverse square law, where the intensity of light is in relation to the inverse square of the distance. That proves that light looses energy the further it travels, but it still moves at the speed of light. As light looses energy, it doesn’t slow the light wave.

It has been proven that more energetic light does in fact travel slightly faster. You can find the experiments done with light that has traveled billions of light years, the more energetic is in fact faster over a number of seconds, around 10 -15 or so. As people encounter this information, they see that many accepted theories can now be debunked.

The point of the article is nothing new; light acts like a particle AND a beam. So when you sit behind a closed door and someone shines a light on the door, the light will engulf the door and wave through and around the edges, the particle does not just bounce straight back. You can focus a beam of light on an object, but it will sneak though the corners and underneath the door, through any opening,. And yes, light travels forever. It is a constant, that cannot be sped up. We can slow it down by focusing it through prisims or crystals. But it still is traveling at 186,000/MPS.and that speed does not change. So, that is why we can see the outer edge of the universe: 13,8B light years away *the time that it takes for light to travel in one year, is one light year. So, it has taken 13,8B light years for the light of other galaxies to get here, so those galaxies could be gone by now, since it took so long to reach us, We are truly looking back in time as we see the light emitted from those galaxies and stars.

It propagates through the quantum mish-mash know as the aether . . .

If light is a particle and particles have mass why does not the mas increase with it speed?

Wow…there are errors in the article, yes…the enthusiasm demonstrated by all the comments is encouraging…but when I read these comments, I am a bit dismayed at the lack of understanding that is evident in most of them…confusing energy and intensity and wavelength…confusing rest mass and inertial mass…not to mention some off-the-wall hypotheses with no experimental evidence to support them. There are some great primers out there…books, documentaries, podcasts (like Astronomy Cast). Good luck!

Precisely correct. Sci-fi rules basic physics, which reflects on the poor education system. Pity.

First time I heard about A. A. and his theory about light I really didn’t like him. Why? Because light was the the fastest thing in the universe and there is no other thing faster than the light. Later, when I have red about angular speed I have asked my self if you have linear and angular speed and both of them are speeds how that will result in the maximum speed. Since then, I have not had a chance to get right answer.

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Course: physics library   >   unit 14, light: electromagnetic waves, the electromagnetic spectrum and photons.

  • Electromagnetic waves and the electromagnetic spectrum
  • Polarization of light, linear and circular

what does light travel through in space

Introduction to electromagnetic waves

Basic properties of waves: amplitude, wavelength, and frequency, example: calculating the wavelength of a light wave, the electromagnetic spectrum, quantization of energy and the dual nature of light, example: calculating the energy of a photon, attributions.

  • “ Electromagnetic Radiation ” from UC Davis ChemWiki, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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May 20, 2016

How does light travel?

by Matt Williams, Universe Today

How does light travel?

Ever since Democritus – a Greek philosopher who lived between the 5th and 4th century's BCE – argued that all of existence was made up of tiny indivisible atoms, scientists have been speculating as to the true nature of light. Whereas scientists ventured back and forth between the notion that light was a particle or a wave until the modern, the 20th century led to breakthroughs that showed that it behaves as both.

These included the discovery of the electron, the development of quantum theory, and Einstein's Theory of Relativity. However, there remains many fascinating and unanswered questions when it comes to light, many of which arise from its dual nature. For instance, how is it that light can be apparently without mass, but still behave as a particle? And how can it behave like a wave and pass through a vacuum, when all other waves require a medium to propagate?

Theory of Light in the 19th Century:

During the Scientific Revolution, scientists began moving away from Aristotelian scientific theories that had been seen as accepted canon for centuries. This included rejecting Aristotle's theory of light, which viewed it as being a disturbance in the air (one of his four "elements" that composed matter), and embracing the more mechanistic view that light was composed of indivisible atoms.

In many ways, this theory had been previewed by atomists of Classical Antiquity – such as Democritus and Lucretius – both of whom viewed light as a unit of matter given off by the sun. By the 17th century, several scientists emerged who accepted this view, stating that light was made up of discrete particles (or "corpuscles"). This included Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and most famously, Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton's corpuscular theory was an elaboration of his view of reality as an interaction of material points through forces. This theory would remain the accepted scientific view for more than 100 years, the principles of which were explained in his 1704 treatise "Opticks, or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections, and Colours of Light". According to Newton, the principles of light could be summed as follows:

  • Every source of light emits large numbers of tiny particles known as corpuscles in a medium surrounding the source.
  • These corpuscles are perfectly elastic, rigid, and weightless.

This represented a challenge to "wave theory", which had been advocated by 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. . These theories were first communicated in 1678 to the Paris Academy of Sciences and were published in 1690 in his "Traité de la lumière" ("Treatise on Light"). In it, he argued a revised version of Descartes views, in which the speed of light is infinite and propagated by means of spherical waves emitted along the wave front.

Double-Slit Experiment:

By the early 19th century, scientists began to break with corpuscular theory. This was due in part to the fact that corpuscular theory failed to adequately explain the diffraction, interference and polarization of light, but was also because of various experiments that seemed to confirm the still-competing view that light behaved as a wave.

The most famous of these was arguably the Double-Slit Experiment, which was originally conducted by English polymath Thomas Young in 1801 (though Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have conducted something similar in his own time). In Young's version of the experiment, he used a slip of paper with slits cut into it, and then pointed a light source at them to measure how light passed through it.

According to classical (i.e. Newtonian) particle theory, the results of the experiment should have corresponded to the slits, the impacts on the screen appearing in two vertical lines. Instead, the results showed that the coherent beams of light were interfering, creating a pattern of bright and dark bands on the screen. This contradicted classical particle theory, in which particles do not interfere with each other, but merely collide.

The only possible explanation for this pattern of interference was that the light beams were in fact behaving as waves. Thus, this experiment dispelled the notion that light consisted of corpuscles and played a vital part in the acceptance of the wave theory of light. However subsequent research, involving the discovery of the electron and electromagnetic radiation , would lead to scientists considering yet again that light behaved as a particle too, thus giving rise to wave-particle duality theory.

Electromagnetism and Special Relativity:

Prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, the speed of light had already been determined. The first recorded measurements were performed by Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, who demonstrated in 1676 using light measurements from Jupiter's moon Io to show that light travels at a finite speed (rather than instantaneously).

By the late 19th century , James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and devised several equations (known as Maxwell's equations) to describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents. By conducting measurements of different types of radiation (magnetic fields, ultraviolet and infrared radiation), he was able to calculate the speed of light in a vacuum (represented as c).

In 1905, Albert Einstein published "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies", in which he advanced one of his most famous theories and overturned centuries of accepted notions and orthodoxies. In his paper, he postulated that the speed of light was the same in all inertial reference frames, regardless of the motion of the light source or the position of the observer.

Exploring the consequences of this theory is what led him to propose his theory of Special Relativity, which reconciled Maxwell's equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, simplified the mathematical calculations, and accorded with the directly observed speed of light and accounted for the observed aberrations. It also demonstrated that the speed of light had relevance outside the context of light and electromagnetism.

For one, it introduced the idea that major changes occur when things move close the speed of light, including the time-space frame of a moving body appearing to slow down and contract in the direction of motion when measured in the frame of the observer. After centuries of increasingly precise measurements, the speed of light was determined to be 299,792,458 m/s in 1975.

How does light travel?

Einstein and the Photon:

In 1905, Einstein also helped to resolve a great deal of confusion surrounding the behavior of electromagnetic radiation when he proposed that electrons are emitted from atoms when they absorb energy from light. Known as the photoelectric effect, Einstein based his idea on Planck's earlier work with "black bodies" – materials that absorb electromagnetic energy instead of reflecting it (i.e. white bodies).

At the time, Einstein's photoelectric effect was attempt to explain the "black body problem", in which a black body emits electromagnetic radiation due to the object's heat. This was a persistent problem in the world of physics, arising from the discovery of the electron, which had only happened eight years previous (thanks to British physicists led by J.J. Thompson and experiments using cathode ray tubes).

At the time, scientists still believed that electromagnetic energy behaved as a wave, and were therefore hoping to be able to explain it in terms of classical physics. Einstein's explanation represented a break with this, asserting that electromagnetic radiation behaved in ways that were consistent with a particle – a quantized form of light which he named "photons". For this discovery, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921.

Wave-Particle Duality:

Subsequent theories on the behavior of light would further refine this idea, which included French physicist Louis-Victor de Broglie calculating the wavelength at which light functioned. This was followed by Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle" (which stated that measuring the position of a photon accurately would disturb measurements of it momentum and vice versa), and Schrödinger's paradox that claimed that all particles have a " wave function ".

In accordance with quantum mechanical explanation, Schrodinger proposed that all the information about a particle (in this case, a photon) is encoded in its wave function, a complex-valued function roughly analogous to the amplitude of a wave at each point in space. At some location, the measurement of the wave function will randomly "collapse", or rather "decohere", to a sharply peaked function. This was illustrated in Schrödinger famous paradox involving a closed box, a cat, and a vial of poison (known as the "Schrödinger's Cat" paradox).

According to his theory, wave function also evolves according to a differential equation (aka. the Schrödinger equation). For particles with mass, this equation has solutions; but for particles with no mass, no solution existed. Further experiments involving the Double-Slit Experiment confirmed the dual nature of photons. where measuring devices were incorporated to observe the photons as they passed through the slits.

When this was done, the photons appeared in the form of particles and their impacts on the screen corresponded to the slits – tiny particle-sized spots distributed in straight vertical lines. By placing an observation device in place, the wave function of the photons collapsed and the light behaved as classical particles once more. As predicted by Schrödinger, this could only be resolved by claiming that light has a wave function, and that observing it causes the range of behavioral possibilities to collapse to the point where its behavior becomes predictable.

The development of Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was devised in the following decades to resolve much of the ambiguity around wave-particle duality. And in time, this theory was shown to apply to other particles and fundamental forces of interaction (such as weak and strong nuclear forces). Today, photons are part of the Standard Model of particle physics, where they are classified as boson – a class of subatomic particles that are force carriers and have no mass.

So how does light travel? Basically, traveling at incredible speeds (299 792 458 m/s) and at different wavelengths, depending on its energy. It also behaves as both a wave and a particle, able to propagate through mediums (like air and water) as well as space. It has no mass, but can still be absorbed, reflected, or refracted if it comes in contact with a medium. And in the end, the only thing that can truly slow down or arrest the speed of light is gravity (i.e. a black hole).

What we have learned about light and electromagnetism has been intrinsic to the revolution which took place in physics in the early 20th century, a revolution that we have been grappling with ever since. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, we have learned much, but still have much to learn.

For instance, its interaction with gravity (along with weak and strong nuclear forces) remains a mystery. Unlocking this, and thus discovering a Theory of Everything (ToE) is something astronomers and physicists look forward to. Someday, we just might have it all figured out!

Source: Universe Today

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How Does Light Travel Through Space and Other Media?

Light is one of the most enigmatic of entities in the universe. You are not the first person to carefully reflect upon this question about light travel. From Galileo, Newton, to Einstein, every one of the great minds has thought about this question and thanks to them, we have an answer today, in terms of the classical theory of electromagnetism.

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How Does Light Travel

The Cosmic Speed Limit

According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the speed of light is constant in vacuum and no object can exceed it. In short, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. It is the cosmic speed limit for information exchange.

Scientists have measured the speed of light to be 299,792,458 meters per second. It is the highest speed that can be achieved by any entity. So far, no object has been found to travel at a velocity that exceeds the speed of light.

One of the central pillars of modern physics, the special theory of relativity, will turn out to be wrong, if light speed is exceeded by any other entity. In short, light is the fastest thing in our universe and no information can travel faster than it. How does light achieve this phenomenal speed? How does it travel at all? Let us find out.

The Nature of Light: Wave/Photons

One can understand the phenomenon of light travel, once its nature is understood. The first glimpses of the nature of light were provided by the ingenuity of James Clark Maxwell. It came as a brilliant revelation to him as he was constructing a theory that describes the electric and magnetic forces between stationary and moving charged objects.

He discovered that electricity and magnetism were two sides of the same coin. His theory combined electricity and magnetism into the unified force of electromagnetism and light was found to be an electromagnetic wave. This theory pictures light as a transverse electromagnetic wave, traveling through space. This is the classical perspective.

However, light can also be alternately perceived as a particle, known as a photon, if you look at it, from the perspective of quantum mechanics, which quantizes all matter and energy. In fact, according to quantum field theory, everything behaves like a particle and a wave. Not just photons, but electrons, which were earlier thought to be particles, are now known to behave as waves. Both, particle and wave viewpoints are equivalent, and for this discussion, we will focus on the wave perspective, which provides a simpler explanation of light travel.

How Light Travels Through Space

So light is a kind of wave. However every wave, waves something. That is, every wave like a sea wave, travels through a medium, in which it causes disturbances and creates undulations.

If a sea wave is a ripple or a disturbance that travels through water, then what is the medium in which light travels as a wave? The answer is none. This is where light is different from any other kind of a wave. It can travel through vacuum and it does not require a medium to propagate.

How does light manage to do this? The answer lies in the fact that it is an electromagnetic wave, carrying energy. Maxwell discovered how light travels through vacuum. Here is an illustration of an electromagnetic wave, that illuminates its nature and clearly presents its component parts.

Electromagnetic wave

Here’s an explanation of what makes light travel possible, in a nutshell. Any charged object has an electric field associated with it. When that electric field changes, a changing magnetic field is created. Consequently, the changing magnetic field again creates an electric field. This continues ad infinitum, creating an electromagnetic wave, traveling in space. This is how light travels, as a disturbance or ripple in the electromagnetic field.

n short, an accelerated charge radiates electromagnetic waves. Mathematically, this relation can be understood through the solution of Maxwell’s equations for free space.

Visible light, radio waves, and even X-rays are all electromagnetic waves of different wavelengths and frequencies. The wavelength of visible light is such that our eyes are tuned to it, just like a radio receiver is tuned to radio waves. Ergo, our eyes can perceive that part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Light travels in straight lines in vacuum. However, in a material medium, light shows two properties of reflection and refraction. When a light wave cannot penetrate an object, it gets reflected back and when a light wave travels inside a medium, it bends or gets refracted.

When light travels through a medium, it interacts with its electric field. Depending on the nature of that field, one can predict the degree of bending or refraction that light undergoes, when passing through it.

Here’s how you perceive light, through your eyes. Light entering inside the white of your eyes (cornea), through the lens, bends or refracts, to get focused on your retina. The retina converts the incident light into electric signals, from which your brain creates an image, that you perceive.

Light Travel Through Different Media

Though the speed of light is constant in vacuum, when traveling through denser media, it slows down considerably. The degree of bending or slowing down of light velocity in different media, is measured by the refractive index of a particular medium. Light undergoes bending or slowing down, when entering a denser medium, from a rarer one and speeds up when entering a rarer medium, from a denser one. Let us see what happens in both cases.

Rarer to denser

As illustrated in the diagram presented below, when light enters a denser medium, it slows down and bends towards the normal. Here, the angle of refraction (r) is lesser than the angle of incidence (r < i).

waves phenomena

As demonstrated by the diagram presented below, when entering a rarer medium, from a denser medium, light speeds up, and bends away from the normal. Here, the angle of refraction is greater than the angle of incidence (r > i).

If the refractive index of one medium is known, the other one can be deduced from Snell’s law, if the angles of incidence (i) and refraction (r) are known. It’s stated as: sin i/sin r = n2/n1 where, ‘i’ is the angle of incidence, ‘r’ is the angle of refraction, and n1 is the refractive index of the medium of incidence, while n2 is the refractive index of the medium of refraction.

To fully understand how the dynamic nature of the electromagnetic field leads to the creation of waves, you will have to dig deep into Maxwell’s equations, presented in the graphic below. A good starting point is The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol.II. If God is perceived to be the laws of nature, one could say the following.

what does light travel through in space

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Does Light Travel Forever?

Most recent answer: 01/23/2013

Hi Raja, Good question. First, let's think about why sound does not travel forever. Sound cannot travel through empty space; it is carried by vibrations in a material, or medium (like air, steel, water, wood, etc). As the particles in the medium vibrate, energy is lost to heat, viscous processes, and molecular motion. So, the sound wave gets smaller and smaller until it disappears. In contrast, light waves can travel through a vacuum, and do not require a medium. In empty space, the wave does not dissipate (grow smaller) no matter how far it travels, because the wave is not interacting with anything else. This is why light from distant stars can travel through space for billions of light-years and still reach us on earth. However, light can also travel within some materials, like glass and water. In this case, some light is absorbed and lost as heat, just like sound. So, underwater, or in our atmosphere, light will only travel some finite range (which is different depending on the properties of the material it travels through). There is one more aspect of wave travel to consider, which applies to both sound and light waves. As a wave travels from a source, it propagates outward in all directions. Therefore, it fills a space given approximately by the surface area of a sphere. This area increases by the square of the distance R from the source; since the wave fills up all this space, its intensity decreases by R squared. This effect just means that the light/sound source will appear dimmer if we are farther away from it, since we don't collect all the light it emits. For example, light from a distant star travels outward in a giant sphere. Only one tiny patch of this sphere of light actually hits our eyes, which is why stars don't blind us! David Schmid

(published on 01/23/2013)

Follow-Up #1: How far does light go?

Light just keeps going and going until it bumps into something.  Then it can either be reflected or absorbed.  Astronomers have detected some light that has been traveling for more that 12 billion years, close to the age of the universe.   

Light has some interesting properties.   It comes in lumps called photons.  These photons carry energy and momentum in specific amounts related to the color of the light.  There is much to learned about light.   I suggest you log in to our website and type  LIGHT into the search box.   Lots of interesting stuff there.

To answer your previous question "Can light go into a black hole?" ,  the answer is yes.

(published on 12/03/2015)

Follow-Up #2: less than one photon?

Certainly you can run the ouput of a single-photon source through a half-silvered mirror, and get a sort of half-ghost of the photon in two places. If you put ordinary photon detectors in those places, however, each will either detect zero or one. For each source photon, you'll get at most one of the detectors to find it. How does the half-ghost at the other one know whether it's detectably there or not? The name of that mystery is "quantum entanglement". At some level we don't really know the answer.

(published on 02/04/2016)

Follow-Up #3: stars too far away to see?

Most stars are too far for us to see them as individual stars even with our best telescopes. Still, we can get light from them, mixed with light from other stars. If our understanding of the universe is at all right, there are also stars that once were visible from here but now are outside our horizon so no light from them reaches us. It's probable that there are many more stars outside our horizon than inside, maybe infinitely more. It's hard to check, however, what's happening outside our horizon! It's even hard to define what we mean by "now" for things outside the horizon.

(published on 07/22/2016)

Follow-Up #4: light going out to space

Certainly ordinary light travels out to space. That's how spy cameras and such can take pictures of things here on the Earth's surface.

(published on 09/01/2016)

Follow-Up #5: end of the universe?

We don't think there's any "end" in the sense of some spatial boundary. Unless something changes drastically, there also won't be an end in time. The expansion looks like it will go on forever. So that wouldn't give a maximum range.

(published on 03/26/2017)

Follow-Up #6: seeing black holes

In principle a well-aimed beam would loop around the outside of the black hole and return to Earth. There aren't any black holes close enough to make this practical. Instead the bending of light by black holes is observed by their lensing effect on light coming from more distant objects.

The amazing gravitational wave signals observed from merging black holes provide even more direct and convincing proof that black holes exist and follow the laws of General Relativity.

(published on 01/29/2018)

Follow-up on this answer

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1) electromagnetic fields, 2) magnetic explosions, 3) wave-particle interactions.

One hundred years ago today, on May 29, 1919, measurements of a solar eclipse offered verification for Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Even before that, Einstein had developed the theory of special relativity, which revolutionized the way we understand light. To this day, it provides guidance on understanding how particles move through space — a key area of research to keep spacecraft and astronauts safe from radiation.

The theory of special relativity showed that particles of light, photons, travel through a vacuum at a constant pace of 670,616,629 miles per hour — a speed that’s immensely difficult to achieve and impossible to surpass in that environment. Yet all across space, from black holes to our near-Earth environment, particles are, in fact, being accelerated to incredible speeds, some even reaching 99.9% the speed of light.

One of NASA’s jobs is to better understand how these particles are accelerated. Studying these superfast, or relativistic, particles can ultimately help protect missions exploring the solar system, traveling to the Moon, and they can teach us more about our galactic neighborhood: A well-aimed near-light-speed particle can trip onboard electronics and too many at once could have negative radiation effects on space-faring astronauts as they travel to the Moon — or beyond.

Here are three ways that acceleration happens.

Most of the processes that accelerate particles to relativistic speeds work with electromagnetic fields — the same force that keeps magnets on your fridge. The two components, electric and magnetic fields, like two sides of the same coin, work together to whisk particles at relativistic speeds throughout the universe.

In essence, electromagnetic fields accelerate charged particles because the particles feel a force in an electromagnetic field that pushes them along, similar to how gravity pulls at objects with mass. In the right conditions, electromagnetic fields can accelerate particles at near-light-speed.

On Earth, electric fields are often specifically harnessed on smaller scales to speed up particles in laboratories. Particle accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider and Fermilab, use pulsed electromagnetic fields to accelerate charged particles up to 99.99999896% the speed of light. At these speeds, the particles can be smashed together to produce collisions with immense amounts of energy. This allows scientists to look for elementary particles and understand what the universe was like in the very first fractions of a second after the Big Bang. 

Download related video from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Magnetic fields are everywhere in space, encircling Earth and spanning the solar system. They even guide charged particles moving through space, which spiral around the fields.

When these magnetic fields run into each other, they can become tangled. When the tension between the crossed lines becomes too great, the lines explosively snap and realign in a process known as magnetic reconnection. The rapid change in a region’s magnetic field creates electric fields, which causes all the attendant charged particles to be flung away at high speeds. Scientists suspect magnetic reconnection is one way that particles — for example, the solar wind, which is the constant stream of charged particles from the Sun — is accelerated to relativistic speeds.

Those speedy particles also create a variety of side-effects near planets.  Magnetic reconnection occurs close to us at points where the Sun’s magnetic field pushes against Earth’s magnetosphere — its protective magnetic environment. When magnetic reconnection occurs on the side of Earth facing away from the Sun, the particles can be hurled into Earth’s upper atmosphere where they spark the auroras. Magnetic reconnection is also thought to be responsible around other planets like Jupiter and Saturn, though in slightly different ways.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft were designed and built to focus on understanding all aspects of magnetic reconnection. Using four identical spacecraft, the mission flies around Earth to catch magnetic reconnection in action. The results of the analyzed data can help scientists understand particle acceleration at relativistic speeds around Earth and across the universe.

Particles can be accelerated by interactions with electromagnetic waves, called wave-particle interactions. When electromagnetic waves collide, their fields can become compressed. Charged particles bouncing back and forth between the waves can gain energy similar to a ball bouncing between two merging walls.

These types of interactions are constantly occurring in near-Earth space and are responsible for accelerating particles to speeds that can damage electronics on spacecraft and satellites in space. NASA missions, like the Van Allen Probes , help scientists understand wave-particle interactions.

Wave-particle interactions are also thought to be responsible for accelerating some cosmic rays that originate outside our solar system. After a supernova explosion, a hot, dense shell of compressed gas called a blast wave is ejected away from the stellar core. Filled with magnetic fields and charged particles, wave-particle interactions in these bubbles can launch high-energy cosmic rays at 99.6% the speed of light. Wave-particle interactions may also be partially responsible for accelerating the solar wind and cosmic rays from the Sun.

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By Mara Johnson-Groh NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center , Greenbelt, Md.

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What Is a Light-Year?

An image of hundreds of small galaxies on the black background of space.

An image of distant galaxies captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, RELICS; Acknowledgment: D. Coe et al.

For most space objects, we use light-years to describe their distance. A light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth year. One light-year is about 6 trillion miles (9 trillion km). That is a 6 with 12 zeros behind it!

Looking Back in Time

When we use powerful telescopes to look at distant objects in space, we are actually looking back in time. How can this be?

Light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles (or 300,000 km) per second. This seems really fast, but objects in space are so far away that it takes a lot of time for their light to reach us. The farther an object is, the farther in the past we see it.

Our Sun is the closest star to us. It is about 93 million miles away. So, the Sun's light takes about 8.3 minutes to reach us. This means that we always see the Sun as it was about 8.3 minutes ago.

The next closest star to us is about 4.3 light-years away. So, when we see this star today, we’re actually seeing it as it was 4.3 years ago. All of the other stars we can see with our eyes are farther, some even thousands of light-years away.

A chart explaining how far away certain objects are from Earth. The Sun is 8.3 light-minutes away. Polaris is 320 light-years away. Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away. Proxima Centauri is 4.3 light-years away. The center of the Milky Way is 26,000 light-years away. GN-z11 is 13.4 billion light-years away.

Stars are found in large groups called galaxies . A galaxy can have millions or billions of stars. The nearest large galaxy to us, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light-years away. So, we see Andromeda as it was 2.5 million years in the past. The universe is filled with billions of galaxies, all farther away than this. Some of these galaxies are much farther away.

An image of the Andromeda galaxy, which appears as a blue and white swirling mass among hundreds more galaxies in the background.

An image of the Andromeda galaxy, as seen by NASA's GALEX observatory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2016, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope looked at the farthest galaxy ever seen, called GN-z11. It is 13.4 billion light-years away, so today we can see it as it was 13.4 billion years ago. That is only 400 million years after the big bang . It is one of the first galaxies ever formed in the universe.

Learning about the very first galaxies that formed after the big bang, like this one, helps us understand what the early universe was like.

Picture of hundreds of galaxies with one shown zoomed in to see greater detail. The zoomed in part looks like a red blob.

This picture shows hundreds of very old and distant galaxies. The oldest one found so far in GN-z11 (shown in the close up image). The image is a bit blurry because this galaxy is so far away. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Oesch (Yale University), G. Brammer (STScI), P. van Dokkum (Yale University), and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz)

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Science News Explores

Explainer: understanding waves and wavelengths.

Waves transfer energy, not matter, from one place to another

ocean wave

The swells of water in the ocean, the sunlight shining down and the sound of the crashing water ⎯ all are types of waves.

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By Jennifer Look

March 5, 2020 at 6:40 am

Waves appear in many different forms. Seismic waves shake the ground during earthquakes. Light waves travel across the universe, allowing us to see distant stars. And every sound we hear is a wave. So what do all these different waves have in common?

A wave is a disturbance that moves energy from one place to another. Only energy —  not matter — is transferred as a wave moves.

The substance that a wave moves through is called the medium . That medium moves back and forth repeatedly, returning to its original position. But the wave travels along the medium. It does not stay in one place.

Imagine holding one end of a piece of rope. If you shake it up and down, you create a wave, with the rope as your medium. When your hand moves up, you create a high point, or crest. As your hand moves down, you create a low point, or trough (TRAWF). The piece of rope touching your hand doesn’t move away from your hand. But the crests and troughs do move away from your hand as the wave travels along the rope. 

wave

The same thing happens in other waves. If you jump in a puddle, your foot pushes on the water in one spot. This starts a small wave. The water that your foot hits moves outward, pushing on the water nearby. This movement creates empty space near your foot, pulling water back inwards. The water oscillates, moving back and forth, creating crests and troughs. The wave then ripples across the puddle. The water that splashes at the edge is a different bit of water than where your foot made contact. The energy from your jump moved across the puddle, but the matter (the molecules of water) only rocked back and forth.

Light, or electromagnetic radiation, also can be described as a wave. The energy of light travels through a medium called an electromagnetic field. This field exists everywhere in the universe. It oscillates when energy disturbs it, just like the rope moves up and down as someone shakes it. Unlike a wave in water or a sound wave in air, light waves don’t need a physical substance to travel through. They can cross empty space because their medium does not involve physical matter. 

Scientists use several properties to measure and describe all these types of waves. Wavelength is the distance from one point on a wave to an identical point on the next, such as from crest to crest or from trough to trough. Waves can come in a wide range of lengths. The wavelength for an ocean wave might be around 120 meters (394 feet). But a typical microwave oven generates waves just 0.12 meter (5 inches) long. Visible light and some other types of electromagnetic radiation have far tinier wavelengths.  

Frequency describes how many waves pass one point during one second. The units for frequency are hertz . Traveling through the air, a music note with a frequency of 261.6 hertz (middle C) pushes air molecules back and forth 261.6 times every second. 

Frequency and wavelength are related to the amount of energy a wave has. For example, when making waves on a rope, it takes more energy to make a higher frequency wave. Moving your hand up and down 10 times per second (10 hertz) requires more energy than moving your hand only once per second (1 hertz). And those 10 hertz waves on the rope have a shorter wavelength than ones at 1 hertz. 

Many researchers rely on the properties and behavior of waves for their work. That includes astronomers, geologists and sound engineers. For example, scientists can use tools that capture reflected sound, light or radio waves to map places or objects. 

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Anatomy of an Electromagnetic Wave

Energy, a measure of the ability to do work, comes in many forms and can transform from one type to another. Examples of stored or potential energy include batteries and water behind a dam. Objects in motion are examples of kinetic energy. Charged particles—such as electrons and protons—create electromagnetic fields when they move, and these fields transport the type of energy we call electromagnetic radiation, or light.

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What are Electromagnetic and Mechanical waves?

Mechanical waves and electromagnetic waves are two important ways that energy is transported in the world around us. Waves in water and sound waves in air are two examples of mechanical waves. Mechanical waves are caused by a disturbance or vibration in matter, whether solid, gas, liquid, or plasma. Matter that waves are traveling through is called a medium. Water waves are formed by vibrations in a liquid and sound waves are formed by vibrations in a gas (air). These mechanical waves travel through a medium by causing the molecules to bump into each other, like falling dominoes transferring energy from one to the next. Sound waves cannot travel in the vacuum of space because there is no medium to transmit these mechanical waves.

An illustration in 3 panels — the first panel shows a wave approaching an insect sitting on the surface of the water. Second panel shows the wave passing underneath the insect, the insect stays in the same place but moves up as the wave passes. Third panel shows that the insect did not move with the wave, instead the wave had passed by the insect.

ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES

Electricity can be static, like the energy that can make your hair stand on end. Magnetism can also be static, as it is in a refrigerator magnet. A changing magnetic field will induce a changing electric field and vice-versa—the two are linked. These changing fields form electromagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves differ from mechanical waves in that they do not require a medium to propagate. This means that electromagnetic waves can travel not only through air and solid materials, but also through the vacuum of space.

In the 1860's and 1870's, a Scottish scientist named James Clerk Maxwell developed a scientific theory to explain electromagnetic waves. He noticed that electrical fields and magnetic fields can couple together to form electromagnetic waves. He summarized this relationship between electricity and magnetism into what are now referred to as "Maxwell's Equations."

A diagram of an electric field shown as a sine wave with red arrows beneath the curves and a magnetic field shown as a sine wave with blue arrows perpendicular to the electric field.

Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist, applied Maxwell's theories to the production and reception of radio waves. The unit of frequency of a radio wave -- one cycle per second -- is named the hertz, in honor of Heinrich Hertz.

His experiment with radio waves solved two problems. First, he had demonstrated in the concrete, what Maxwell had only theorized — that the velocity of radio waves was equal to the velocity of light! This proved that radio waves were a form of light! Second, Hertz found out how to make the electric and magnetic fields detach themselves from wires and go free as Maxwell's waves — electromagnetic waves.

WAVES OR PARTICLES? YES!

Light is made of discrete packets of energy called photons. Photons carry momentum, have no mass, and travel at the speed of light. All light has both particle-like and wave-like properties. How an instrument is designed to sense the light influences which of these properties are observed. An instrument that diffracts light into a spectrum for analysis is an example of observing the wave-like property of light. The particle-like nature of light is observed by detectors used in digital cameras—individual photons liberate electrons that are used for the detection and storage of the image data.

POLARIZATION

One of the physical properties of light is that it can be polarized. Polarization is a measurement of the electromagnetic field's alignment. In the figure above, the electric field (in red) is vertically polarized. Think of a throwing a Frisbee at a picket fence. In one orientation it will pass through, in another it will be rejected. This is similar to how sunglasses are able to eliminate glare by absorbing the polarized portion of the light.

DESCRIBING ELECTROMAGNETIC ENERGY

The terms light, electromagnetic waves, and radiation all refer to the same physical phenomenon: electromagnetic energy. This energy can be described by frequency, wavelength, or energy. All three are related mathematically such that if you know one, you can calculate the other two. Radio and microwaves are usually described in terms of frequency (Hertz), infrared and visible light in terms of wavelength (meters), and x-rays and gamma rays in terms of energy (electron volts). This is a scientific convention that allows the convenient use of units that have numbers that are neither too large nor too small.

The number of crests that pass a given point within one second is described as the frequency of the wave. One wave—or cycle—per second is called a Hertz (Hz), after Heinrich Hertz who established the existence of radio waves. A wave with two cycles that pass a point in one second has a frequency of 2 Hz.

Diagram showing frequency as the measurement of the number of wave crests that pass a given point in a second. Wavelength is measured as the distance between two crests.

Electromagnetic waves have crests and troughs similar to those of ocean waves. The distance between crests is the wavelength. The shortest wavelengths are just fractions of the size of an atom, while the longest wavelengths scientists currently study can be larger than the diameter of our planet!

An illustration showing a jump rope with each end being held by a person. As the people move the jump rope up and down very fast – adding MORE energy – the more wave crests appear, thus shorter wavelengths. When the people move the jump rope up and down slower, there are fewer wave crests within the same distance, thus longer wavelengths.

An electromagnetic wave can also be described in terms of its energy—in units of measure called electron volts (eV). An electron volt is the amount of kinetic energy needed to move an electron through one volt potential. Moving along the spectrum from long to short wavelengths, energy increases as the wavelength shortens. Consider a jump rope with its ends being pulled up and down. More energy is needed to make the rope have more waves.

Next: Wave Behaviors

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Science Mission Directorate. (2010). Anatomy of an Electromagnetic Wave. Retrieved [insert date - e.g. August 10, 2016] , from NASA Science website: http://science.nasa.gov/ems/02_anatomy

Science Mission Directorate. "Anatomy of an Electromagnetic Wave" NASA Science . 2010. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. [insert date - e.g. 10 Aug. 2016] http://science.nasa.gov/ems/02_anatomy

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James Webb Space Telescope

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which have a blue or orange hue. The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

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Warp drives: Physicists give chances of faster-than -light space travel a boost

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Associate Professor of Physics, Oklahoma State University

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Mario Borunda does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The closest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri. It is about 4.25 light-years away, or about 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km). The fastest ever spacecraft, the now- in-space Parker Solar Probe will reach a top speed of 450,000 mph. It would take just 20 seconds to go from Los Angeles to New York City at that speed, but it would take the solar probe about 6,633 years to reach Earth’s nearest neighboring solar system.

If humanity ever wants to travel easily between stars, people will need to go faster than light. But so far, faster-than-light travel is possible only in science fiction.

In Issac Asimov’s Foundation series , humanity can travel from planet to planet, star to star or across the universe using jump drives. As a kid, I read as many of those stories as I could get my hands on. I am now a theoretical physicist and study nanotechnology, but I am still fascinated by the ways humanity could one day travel in space.

Some characters – like the astronauts in the movies “Interstellar” and “Thor” – use wormholes to travel between solar systems in seconds. Another approach – familiar to “Star Trek” fans – is warp drive technology. Warp drives are theoretically possible if still far-fetched technology. Two recent papers made headlines in March when researchers claimed to have overcome one of the many challenges that stand between the theory of warp drives and reality.

But how do these theoretical warp drives really work? And will humans be making the jump to warp speed anytime soon?

A circle on a flat blue plane with the surface dipping down in front and rising up behind.

Compression and expansion

Physicists’ current understanding of spacetime comes from Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity . General Relativity states that space and time are fused and that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. General relativity also describes how mass and energy warp spacetime – hefty objects like stars and black holes curve spacetime around them. This curvature is what you feel as gravity and why many spacefaring heroes worry about “getting stuck in” or “falling into” a gravity well. Early science fiction writers John Campbell and Asimov saw this warping as a way to skirt the speed limit.

What if a starship could compress space in front of it while expanding spacetime behind it? “Star Trek” took this idea and named it the warp drive.

In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre, a Mexican theoretical physicist, showed that compressing spacetime in front of the spaceship while expanding it behind was mathematically possible within the laws of General Relativity . So, what does that mean? Imagine the distance between two points is 10 meters (33 feet). If you are standing at point A and can travel one meter per second, it would take 10 seconds to get to point B. However, let’s say you could somehow compress the space between you and point B so that the interval is now just one meter. Then, moving through spacetime at your maximum speed of one meter per second, you would be able to reach point B in about one second. In theory, this approach does not contradict the laws of relativity since you are not moving faster than light in the space around you. Alcubierre showed that the warp drive from “Star Trek” was in fact theoretically possible.

Proxima Centauri here we come, right? Unfortunately, Alcubierre’s method of compressing spacetime had one problem: it requires negative energy or negative mass.

A 2–dimensional diagram showing how matter warps spacetime

A negative energy problem

Alcubierre’s warp drive would work by creating a bubble of flat spacetime around the spaceship and curving spacetime around that bubble to reduce distances. The warp drive would require either negative mass – a theorized type of matter – or a ring of negative energy density to work. Physicists have never observed negative mass, so that leaves negative energy as the only option.

To create negative energy, a warp drive would use a huge amount of mass to create an imbalance between particles and antiparticles. For example, if an electron and an antielectron appear near the warp drive, one of the particles would get trapped by the mass and this results in an imbalance. This imbalance results in negative energy density. Alcubierre’s warp drive would use this negative energy to create the spacetime bubble.

But for a warp drive to generate enough negative energy, you would need a lot of matter. Alcubierre estimated that a warp drive with a 100-meter bubble would require the mass of the entire visible universe .

In 1999, physicist Chris Van Den Broeck showed that expanding the volume inside the bubble but keeping the surface area constant would reduce the energy requirements significantly , to just about the mass of the sun. A significant improvement, but still far beyond all practical possibilities.

A sci-fi future?

Two recent papers – one by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire and another by Erik Lentz – provide solutions that seem to bring warp drives closer to reality.

Bobrick and Martire realized that by modifying spacetime within the bubble in a certain way, they could remove the need to use negative energy. This solution, though, does not produce a warp drive that can go faster than light.

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Independently, Lentz also proposed a solution that does not require negative energy. He used a different geometric approach to solve the equations of General Relativity, and by doing so, he found that a warp drive wouldn’t need to use negative energy. Lentz’s solution would allow the bubble to travel faster than the speed of light.

It is essential to point out that these exciting developments are mathematical models. As a physicist, I won’t fully trust models until we have experimental proof. Yet, the science of warp drives is coming into view. As a science fiction fan, I welcome all this innovative thinking. In the words of Captain Picard , things are only impossible until they are not.

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A Groundbreaking Scientific Discovery Just Gave Humanity the Keys to Interstellar Travel

In a first, this warp drive actually obeys the laws of physics.

If a superluminal—meaning faster than the speed of light—warp drive like Alcubierre’s worked, it would revolutionize humanity’s endeavors across the universe , allowing us, perhaps, to reach Alpha Centauri, our closest star system, in days or weeks even though it’s four light years away.

However, the Alcubierre drive has a glaring problem: the force behind its operation, called “negative energy,” involves exotic particles—hypothetical matter that, as far as we know, doesn’t exist in our universe. Described only in mathematical terms, exotic particles act in unexpected ways, like having negative mass and working in opposition to gravity (in fact, it has “anti-gravity”). For the past 30 years, scientists have been publishing research that chips away at the inherent hurdles to light speed revealed in Alcubierre’s foundational 1994 article published in the peer-reviewed journal Classical and Quantum Gravity .

Now, researchers at the New York City-based think tank Applied Physics believe they’ve found a creative new approach to solving the warp drive’s fundamental roadblock. Along with colleagues from other institutions, the team envisioned a “positive energy” system that doesn’t violate the known laws of physics . It’s a game-changer, say two of the study’s authors: Gianni Martire, CEO of Applied Physics, and Jared Fuchs, Ph.D., a senior scientist there. Their work, also published in Classical and Quantum Gravity in late April, could be the first chapter in the manual for interstellar spaceflight.

POSITIVE ENERGY MAKES all the difference. Imagine you are an astronaut in space, pushing a tennis ball away from you. Instead of moving away, the ball pushes back, to the point that it would “take your hand off” if you applied enough pushing force, Martire tells Popular Mechanics . That’s a sign of negative energy, and, though the Alcubierre drive design requires it, there’s no way to harness it.

Instead, regular old positive energy is more feasible for constructing the “ warp bubble .” As its name suggests, it’s a spherical structure that surrounds and encloses space for a passenger ship using a shell of regular—but incredibly dense—matter. The bubble propels the spaceship using the powerful gravity of the shell, but without causing the passengers to feel any acceleration. “An elevator ride would be more eventful,” Martire says.

That’s because the density of the shell, as well as the pressure it exerts on the interior, is controlled carefully, Fuchs tells Popular Mechanics . Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, according to the gravity-bound principles of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity . So the bubble is designed such that observers within their local spacetime environment—inside the bubble—experience normal movement in time. Simultaneously, the bubble itself compresses the spacetime in front of the ship and expands it behind the ship, ferrying itself and the contained craft incredibly fast. The walls of the bubble generate the necessary momentum, akin to the momentum of balls rolling, Fuchs explains. “It’s the movement of the matter in the walls that actually creates the effect for passengers on the inside.”

Building on its 2021 paper published in Classical and Quantum Gravity —which details the same researchers’ earlier work on physical warp drives—the team was able to model the complexity of the system using its own computational program, Warp Factory. This toolkit for modeling warp drive spacetimes allows researchers to evaluate Einstein’s field equations and compute the energy conditions required for various warp drive geometries. Anyone can download and use it for free . These experiments led to what Fuchs calls a mini model, the first general model of a positive-energy warp drive. Their past work also demonstrated that the amount of energy a warp bubble requires depends on the shape of the bubble; for example, the flatter the bubble in the direction of travel, the less energy it needs.

THIS LATEST ADVANCEMENT suggests fresh possibilities for studying warp travel design, Erik Lentz, Ph.D., tells Popular Mechanics . In his current position as a staff physicist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, Lentz contributes to research on dark matter detection and quantum information science research. His independent research in warp drive theory also aims to be grounded in conventional physics while reimagining the shape of warped space. The topic needs to overcome many practical hurdles, he says.

Controlling warp bubbles requires a great deal of coordination because they involve enormous amounts of matter and energy to keep the passengers safe and with a similar passage of time as the destination. “We could just as well engineer spacetime where time passes much differently inside [the passenger compartment] than outside. We could miss our appointment at Proxima Centauri if we aren’t careful,” Lentz says. “That is still a risk if we are traveling less than the speed of light.” Communication between people inside the bubble and outside could also become distorted as it passes through the curvature of warped space, he adds.

While Applied Physics’ current solution requires a warp drive that travels below the speed of light, the model still needs to plug in a mass equivalent to about two Jupiters. Otherwise, it will never achieve the gravitational force and momentum high enough to cause a meaningful warp effect. But no one knows what the source of this mass could be—not yet, at least. Some research suggests that if we could somehow harness dark matter , we could use it for light-speed travel, but Fuchs and Martire are doubtful, since it’s currently a big mystery (and an exotic particle).

Despite the many problems scientists still need to solve to build a working warp drive, the Applied Physics team claims its model should eventually get closer to light speed. And even if a feasible model remains below the speed of light, it’s a vast improvement over today’s technology. For example, traveling at even half the speed of light to Alpha Centauri would take nine years. In stark contrast, our fastest spacecraft, Voyager 1—currently traveling at 38,000 miles per hour—would take 75,000 years to reach our closest neighboring star system.

Of course, as you approach the actual speed of light, things get truly weird, according to the principles of Einstein’s special relativity . The mass of an object moving faster and faster would increase infinitely, eventually requiring an infinite amount of energy to maintain its speed.

“That’s the chief limitation and key challenge we have to overcome—how can we have all this matter in our [bubble], but not at such a scale that we can never even put it together?” Martire says. It’s possible the answer lies in condensed matter physics, he adds. This branch of physics deals particularly with the forces between atoms and electrons in matter. It has already proven fundamental to several of our current technologies, such as transistors, solid-state lasers, and magnetic storage media.

The other big issue is that current models allow a stable warp bubble, but only for a constant velocity. Scientists still need to figure out how to design an initial acceleration. On the other end of the journey, how will the ship slow down and stop? “It’s like trying to grasp the automobile for the first time,” Martire says. “We don’t have an engine just yet, but we see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Warp drive technology is at the stage of 1882 car technology, he says: when automobile travel was possible, but it still looked like a hard, hard problem.

The Applied Physics team believes future innovations in warp travel are inevitable. The general positive energy model is a first step. Besides, you don’t need to zoom at light speed to achieve distances that today are just a dream, Martire says. “Humanity is officially, mathematically, on an interstellar track.”

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Before joining Popular Mechanics , Manasee Wagh worked as a newspaper reporter, a science journalist, a tech writer, and a computer engineer. She’s always looking for ways to combine the three greatest joys in her life: science, travel, and food.

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IMAGES

  1. New NASA Animations Show How Slowly Light Travels Through Space

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  2. How Does Light Travel Through Space? Facts & FAQ

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  3. New NASA Animations Show How Slowly Light Travels Through Space the

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  4. How Far Does Light Travel in a Year?

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  5. How Far Does Light Travel in a Year?

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  6. Light Year

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  1. The Truth About Faster Than Light Travel: Debunking the Myths #shorts

  2. IS NASA HIDING SOMETHING? SECRETS TO LIGHT TRAVEL DEBUNKED

  3. Why Does Light Travel at a 45 Degree Angle?

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  5. What happens if you travel at the speed of light? 🚀 #space #nasa

  6. How Light Travels without Medium in Space (in Hindi)

COMMENTS

  1. How Does Light Travel Through Space? Facts & FAQ

    Facts & FAQ. Light is such a fundamental part of our lives. From the moment we're born, we are showered with all kinds of electromagnetic radiation, both colorful, and invisible. Light travels through the vacuum of space at 186,828 miles per second as transverse waves, outside of any material or medium, because photons—the particles that ...

  2. How Does Light Travel?

    A Ray of Light. When an electromagnetic source generates light, the light travels outward as a series of concentric spheres spaced in accordance with the vibration of the source. Light always takes the shortest path between a source and destination. A line drawn from the source to the destination, perpendicular to the wave-fronts, is called a ray.

  3. Speed of light: How fast light travels, explained simply and clearly

    The fields leapfrog over each other and can even travel through empty space. When Maxwell went to calculate the speed of these electromagnetic waves, he was surprised to see the speed of light pop ...

  4. How fast does light travel?

    The speed of light traveling through a vacuum is exactly 299,792,458 meters (983,571,056 feet) per second. That's about 186,282 miles per second — a universal constant known in equations as "c ...

  5. A Journey of Light through Space and Time

    Transcript. Just 370,000 years after the universe began in a big bang, all that existed was a hot plasma, similar to a candle flame. Protons and electrons, seen as the red and green balls, were bouncing around scattering the light. The particles of light, called photons (shown in blue), couldn't go far without colliding with an electron.

  6. Why is the speed of light the way it is?

    Light travels through space and its speed is independent of space itself so, for instance, as it passes near a star or blackhole and space is warped, it doesn't slow down or speed up, though its ...

  7. How Light moves through Space • Waves • Physics Fox

    How does light move through space? Can it travel whatever path it feels like? Not quite — in fact there's a law that describes this:. Light always moves through space in a straight line.. If light didn't move in a straight line, you'd be able to see round corners!. Most luminous objects emit light in all directions, but this is still only in straight lines.

  8. How Does Light Travel?

    So how does light travel? Basically, traveling at incredible speeds (299 792 458 m/s) and at different wavelengths, depending on its energy. It also behaves as both a wave and a particle, able to ...

  9. The Electromagnetic Spectrum

    All light, or electromagnetic radiation, travels through space at 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second — the speed of light. That's about as far as a car will go over its lifetime, traveled by light in a single second! How We Measure Light. Light travels in waves, much like the waves you find in the ocean.

  10. Light: Electromagnetic waves, the electromagnetic spectrum and photons

    Electromagnetic radiation is one of the many ways that energy travels through space. The heat from a burning fire, the light from the sun, the X-rays used by your doctor, as well as the energy used to cook food in a microwave are all forms of electromagnetic radiation. While these forms of energy might seem quite different from one another ...

  11. How does light travel?

    According to Newton, the principles of light could be summed as follows: Every source of light emits large numbers of tiny particles known as corpuscles in a medium surrounding the source. These ...

  12. How Does Light Travel Through Space and Other Media?

    Light travels in straight lines in vacuum. However, in a material medium, light shows two properties of reflection and refraction. When a light wave cannot penetrate an object, it gets reflected back and when a light wave travels inside a medium, it bends or gets refracted. When light travels through a medium, it interacts with its electric field.

  13. Wavelengths

    As the light from the universe's most distant galaxies travels through space, it's stretched by the expansion of space. By the time the light reaches Earth, that stretching process has transformed short wavelengths of visible and ultraviolet light into the longer wavelengths of infrared light.

  14. Does Light Travel Forever?

    Sound cannot travel through empty space; it is carried by vibrations in a material, or medium (like air, steel, water, wood, etc). As the particles in the medium vibrate, energy is lost to heat, viscous processes, and molecular motion. So, the sound wave gets smaller and smaller until it disappears. In contrast, light waves can travel through a ...

  15. How Light Travels: Telescopes Can Show Us the Invisible Universe

    They always travel through the vacuum of space at 186,400 miles per second—the speed of light—which is faster than anything else. Too bad we can glimpse only about 0.0035 percent of the light ...

  16. Three Ways to Travel at (Nearly) the Speed of Light

    The theory of special relativity showed that particles of light, photons, travel through a vacuum at a constant pace of 670,616,629 miles per hour — a speed that's immensely difficult to achieve and impossible to surpass in that environment. Yet all across space, from black holes to our near-Earth environment, particles are, in fact, being ...

  17. What is a light-year?

    Light-year is the distance light travels in one year. Light zips through interstellar space at 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second and 5.88 trillion miles (9.46 trillion kilometers) per year. We use light-time to measure the vast distances of space. It's the distance that light travels in a specific period of time.

  18. What Is a Light-Year?

    For most space objects, we use light-years to describe their distance. A light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth year. One light-year is about 6 trillion miles (9 trillion km). That is a 6 with 12 zeros behind it! ... Light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles (or 300,000 km) per second. This seems really fast, but objects in space ...

  19. Explainer: Understanding waves and wavelengths

    The energy of light travels through a medium called an electromagnetic field. This field exists everywhere in the universe. It oscillates when energy disturbs it, just like the rope moves up and down as someone shakes it. ... wave: A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.

  20. Anatomy of an Electromagnetic Wave

    Sound waves cannot travel in the vacuum of space because there is no medium to transmit these mechanical waves. Classical waves transfer energy without transporting matter through the medium. Waves in a pond do not carry the water molecules from place to place; rather the wave's energy travels through the water, leaving the water molecules in ...

  21. Warp drives: Physicists give chances of faster-than-light space travel

    The fastest ever spacecraft, the now- in-space Parker Solar Probe will reach a top speed of 450,000 mph. It would take just 20 seconds to go from Los Angeles to New York City at that speed, but it ...

  22. Speed of light

    According to the special theory of relativity, c is the upper limit for the speed at which conventional matter or energy (and thus any signal carrying information) can travel through space. All forms of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, travel at the speed of light. For many practical purposes, light and other electromagnetic ...

  23. How does light slow down?

    Light goes in, a polariton travels through and light goes out. The end result: The light moves more slowly. Learn more by listening to the "Ask A Spaceman" podcast, available on iTunes and ...

  24. Which Milky Way spiral arm is ours?

    But we aren't quite free floating in empty space. ... because many orbit the galaxy in paths that carry them through the deadly spiral arms. ... the Milky Way is about 100,000 light-years across ...

  25. What is it like to be a photon traveling at light speed?

    How the photon of light experiences space can be determined using the same approach. As a traveler goes faster and faster, the distance separating the Earth and the distant star seems shorter and ...

  26. Science News: Latest Development and Breakthroughs in Technology

    Find the latest science news articles, photos and videos covering space, the environment, human development and more on NBCNews.com.

  27. Astronomical Unit: How far away is the sun?

    It takes light 8.3 minutes to travel between Earth and the sun but 3.26 years to travel one parsec. Changes to the definition Before 2012, the definition of an astronomical unit was not defined as ...

  28. Scientists Just Made a Breakthrough For Interstellar Travel

    Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, according to the gravity-bound principles of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. So the bubble is designed such that observers ...

  29. Space Exploration Coverage

    NASA's Mars Sample Return mission has faced quite a few hurdles, and the agency has selected ten studies to try and find more affordable and quicker means of going about the project. SpaceX plans ...

  30. Why Birds Hit Windows—and How You Can Help Prevent It

    Before releasing the bird, keep some distance from any trees/vegetation so you can assess the bird's flight. Point the bag/box in the direction of vegetation and slowly open the top. If the bird does not fly well, try to recapture it and reconnect with the wildlife rehab facility for more guidance.