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Would you really age more slowly on a spaceship at close to light speed?

Your space questions, answered.
December 7, 2019
High-speed travel.
High-speed travel.
High-speed travel.Craig Cormack / Flickr

Every week, the readers of our space newsletter, The Airlock, send in their questions for space reporter Neel V. Patel to answer. This week: time dilation during space travel. 

I heard that time dilation affects high-speed space travel and I am wondering the magnitude of that affect. If we were to launch a round-trip flight to a nearby exoplanet—let's say 10 or 50 light-years away––how would that affect time for humans on the spaceship versus humans on Earth? When the space travelers came back, will they be much younger or older relative to people who stayed on Earth? —Serge

Time dilation is a concept that pops up in lots of sci-fi, including Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, where one character ages only eight years in space while 50 years pass on Earth. This is precisely the scenario outlined in the famous thought experiment the Twin Paradox: an astronaut with an identical twin at mission control makes a journey into space on a high-speed rocket and returns home to find that the twin has aged faster.

Time dilation goes back to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which teaches us that motion through space actually creates alterations in the flow of time. The faster you move through the three dimensions that define physical space, the more slowly you’re moving through the fourth dimension, time––at least relative to another object. Time is measured differently for the twin who moved through space and the twin who stayed on Earth. The clock in motion will tick more slowly than the clocks we’re watching on Earth. If you’re able to travel near the speed of light, the effects are much more pronounced. 

Unlike the Twin Paradox, time dilation isn’t a thought experiment or a hypothetical concept––it’s real. The 1971 Hafele-Keating experiments proved as much, when two atomic clocks were flown on planes traveling in opposite directions. The relative motion actually had a measurable impact and created a time difference between the two clocks. This has also been confirmed in other physics experiments (e.g., fast-moving muon particles take longer to decay). 

So in your question, an astronaut returning from a space journey at “relativistic speeds” (where the effects of relativity start to manifest—generally at least one-tenth the speed of light) would, upon return, be younger than same-age friends and family who stayed on Earth. Exactly how much younger depends on exactly how fast the spacecraft had been moving and accelerating, so it’s not something we can readily answer. But if you’re trying to reach an exoplanet 10 to 50 light-years away and still make it home before you yourself die of old age, you’d have to be moving at close to light speed. 

There’s another wrinkle here worth mentioning: time dilation as a result of gravitational effects. You might have seen Christopher Nolan’s movie Interstellar, where the close proximity of a black hole causes time on another planet to slow down tremendously (one hour on that planet is seven Earth years).

This form of time dilation is also real, and it’s because in Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravity can bend spacetime, and therefore time itself. The closer the clock is to the source of gravitation, the slower time passes; the farther away the clock is from gravity, the faster time will pass. (We can save the details of that explanation for a future Airlock.)

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