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10 Best Ideas for Interplanetary Communication


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Faster-than-Light Neutrinophones
A model of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel as seen in the CERN (European Organization For Nuclear Research) visitors' center in Geneva-Meyrin, Switzerland. The LHC is the world's biggest and most powerful particle accelerator. Johannes Simon/Getty Images
A model of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel as seen in the CERN (European Organization For Nuclear Research) visitors' center in Geneva-Meyrin, Switzerland. The LHC is the world's biggest and most powerful particle accelerator. Johannes Simon/Getty Images

No matter how many mind-bogglingly complicated gadgets we develop to piece together faint communications signals struggling to reach us from deep space, we still face another, even more challenging problem. Inside our solar system, the distances are so great that easy, instantaneous back-and-forth communication of the sort that we're accustomed to on Earth -- a Skype-style video conversation, for example -- isn't really feasible, at least with present technology. And if we're going to travel to planets outside our solar system, it would become pretty much impossible. If a starship reached our nearest interstellar neighbor, the Alpha Centauri star system trillions of miles away, it would take 4.2 years for each side of a voice, video or text transmission to cross that mind-blowingly large distance. That's why visionaries long have been intrigued with the idea of transmitting messages via beams of subatomic particle that would travel faster than light.

Wow -- that sounds like an easy fix, doesn't it? But guess again. For that scheme to work, we seemingly would have to blow a great big hole in Einstein's theory of special relativity, which prohibits anything from moving faster than light speed. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't. In 2012, two mathematicians published a paper in a British scientific journal, claiming that there's a way to crunch Einstein's calculations and show that faster-than-light velocities are indeed possible [source: Moskowitz]. But if those dissenters turn out to be right, we'd still have to actually find some proof that particles can move faster than light speed, and so far we haven't.

There was one highly-publicized 2011 experiment, in which researchers at the CERN particle accelerator in Europe supposedly clocked particles called neutrinos moving an extremely tiny bit faster than Einstein's speed limit. But as it turned out, a glitch in the fiber-optic cable in the researchers' equipment apparently caused a false reading (it wasn't plugged in completely) [source: Boyle]. That put the kibosh on prospects of a cosmic neutrinophone, at least for the time being.