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Faster-than-light, or FTL, communications and travel are staples of the science fiction genre. However, according to physics as currently understood, these things are either outright impossible or else well beyond our current technology.

Table of contents
1 Relativity
2 Quantum mechanics
3 Non-informative phenomena


Special relativity makes the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second in vacuo) an absolute speed limit for the transmission of information. All observed particles with mass travel slower. (To be precise, it requires an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a massive object to the speed of light.) Massless objects, such as photons and the hypothetical gravitons, always travel at exactly the speed of light.

The limit is not quite as absolute in general relativity. That theory forbids a massive object to accelerate to the speed of light, just as special relativity does. However, it allows spacetime to be distorted in a fashion which causes an object to move faster than light from the point of view of a distant observer. That object still moves slower than light in its own reference frame. One such arrangement is the Alcubierre drive metric, which can be thought of as producing a traveling wave in spacetime that carries an object along with it. Another possibility is the wormhole, which provides a "short cut" between two distant locations. To date there is no feasible way to construct any such special curvature; they all require require unknown exotic matter, enormous (but finite) amounts of energy, or both.

General relativity predicts that any technique for faster-than-light travel could also be used for time travel. This raises problems of causality. Many physicists believe that the above phenomena are in fact impossible, and future theories of gravity will prohibit them.

Quantum mechanics

Certain phenomena in quantum mechanics, such as entanglement, appear to transmit information faster than light. These phenomena do not allow true communication; they only let two observers in different locations know what the other must see. The fact that the laws of physics seem to conspire to prevent superluminal communications via quantum mechanics is very interesting and somewhat poorly understood.

It has been postulated that there could exist a class of particles (known as tachyons) which must always travel faster than light, but such particles have never been observed. If they exist and can interact with normal matter, they would also allow causality violations. If they exist but cannot interact with normal matter, their existence cannot be proven, so they might as well not exist.

Non-informative phenomena

Processes which do not transmit information may move faster than light. A good example is a beam of light projected onto a distant surface. The spot where the beam strikes is not a physical object. Moving it (by reorienting the beam) does not carry information between locations on the surface. To put it another way, the beam can be considered as a stream of photons; where each photon strikes the surface is determined only by the orientation of the beam (assuming that the surface is stationary). If the distance between the beam projector and the surface is sufficiently far, a small change of angle could cause successive photons to strike at widely separated locations, and the spot would appear to move faster than light. This effect is believed to be responsible for supernova ejecta appearing to move faster than light as observed from Earth. It could also be demonstrated with a large laser reflecting off the surface of the moon.

It is also possible for two objects to move faster than light relative to each other, but only from the point of view of an observer in a third frame of reference. An observer on either object will see the other object moving slower than light. For example, particles on opposite sides of a circular particle accelerator will appear to be moving at slightly less than twice the speed of light, relative to each other, from the point of view of an observer standing in the middle of the ring.

The expansion of the universe causes distant galaxies to recede from us faster than the speed of light. This process cannot transmit information, as nothing is getting closer to anything.