by Dr. G.H. George, Mathematics Section, Gulf Polytechnic.
This article appeared in the Voice of Technology, #7, pp.36-37, (Bahrain), 1987
The “Voice of Technology” was an in-house publication of the then Gulf Polytechnic (later the University of Bahrain) and was founded in the 1980’s.
It is shown from purely classical considerations that apparent superluminal (faster than light) motion, transverse to the line of sight, can persist over several degrees of the field of view, even if the true velocity is subluminal.
Key words: superluminal motion, quasars.
Nothing can travel faster than light in free space. This fact is the foundation of Einstein’s first (special) theory of relativity and it is one of the few parts of relativity theory which are widely known outside the physics community.
Therefore it came as quite a surprise when the British scientific journal “Nature” published an article showing radio maps of objects apparently moving away from each other faster than the speed of light, (Pearson et al., Nature 1981 Vol. 290, pages 365-368). The objects are thought to be collections of hot plasma streaming out from a quasar in a narrow jet.
Quasars have very faint images which look like stars when viewed telescopically. However, their spectra indicate very high speeds of recession, (between 15% and 97% of the speed of light). Most astronomers today  believe that galactic speeds of recession are approximately proportional to distance.
This would place the quasars so far away that the light by which we see the farthest of them now set out before our solar system even existed. At such immense distances, (thousands of millions of light years), almost any measurable movement across the sky over the period of a year would require superluminal (faster than light) motion.
If the method of determining quasar distances is correct, then the apparent relative speed of the quasar components is anything up to ten times the speed of light. How can this happen, when nothing can move faster than light?
Let c be the speed of light.
From triangle ONP, r2 =
b2 + R 2
Hence the time which elapses between the observer seeing the particle at P and seeing it at Q is
Hence the apparent speed of the particle is
We are interested in the component of apparent velocity transverse to the line of sight, (i.e. the apparent speed across the sky),
When the particle is receding,
for all positive true speeds v.
When the particle is approaching,
In this case it makes sense to replace the obtuse angle q by its supplementary acute angle . Then
For a given true velocity v , the apparent transverse
velocity has a maximum where
So for , apparent transverse superluminal motion can persist over a significant range of angles f. There is no paradox!
Let us find the range of angles,
Define a new angle z as in Figure 2:
Therefore apparent transverse superluminal motion persists over a range of angles
v / c
As can be seen from figure 3, true subluminal velocities can cause apparent superluminal transverse motion at over ten times the speed of light, which persists for over ten degrees of the sky. In this way, the observations can be explained.
Figure 3: Range of angles of apparent transverse
versus true velocity as a proportion of the speed of light