Speed kills: Highly relativistic spaceflight would be fatal for passengers and instruments


Highly relativistic speeds are desirable for interstellar travel. Relativistic time dilation would reduce the subjective duration of the trip for the travelers, so that they can cover galaxy-scale distances in a reasonable amount of personal time. Unfortunately, as spaceship velocities approach the speed of light, interstellar hydrogen H, although only present at a density of approximately 1.8 atoms/cm3, turns into intense radiation that would quickly kill passengers and destroy electronic instrumentation. In addition, the energy loss of ionizing radiation passing through the ship’s hull represents an increasing heat load that necessitates large expenditures of energy to cool the ship. Stopping or diverting this flux, either with material or electromagnetic shields, is a daunting problem. Going slow to avoid severe H irradiation sets an upper speed limit of v ~ 0.5 c. This velocity only gives a time dilation factor of about 15%, which would not substantially assist galaxy-scale voyages. Diffuse interstellar H atoms are the ultimate cosmic space mines and represent a formidable obstacle to interstellar travel.

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Edelstein, W. and Edelstein, A. (2012) Speed kills: Highly relativistic spaceflight would be fatal for passengers and instruments. Natural Science, 4, 749-754. doi: 10.4236/ns.2012.410099.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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