Warp Speed Kills

Warp speed kills, according to William Edelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He claims that the thin wisp of hydrogen gas that permeates interstellar space would be transformed into a deadly radiation beam that would burn both instrumentation and humans in a spacecraft that approached the speed of light.


(Warp speed kills)

For the crew of a spacecraft ramping up to light speed, interstellar space would appear highly compressed, thereby increasing the number of hydrogen atoms hitting the craft.

For a crew to make the 50,000-light-year journey to the centre of the Milky Way within 10 years, they would have to travel at 99.999998 per cent the speed of light. At these speeds, hydrogen atoms would seem to reach a staggering 7 teraelectron volts – the same energy that protons will eventually reach in the Large Hadron Collider when it runs at full throttle. "For the crew, it would be like standing in front of the LHC beam," says Edelstein.

The spacecraft's hull would provide little protection. Edelstein calculates that a 10-centimetre-thick layer of aluminium would absorb less than 1 per cent of the energy. Because hydrogen atoms have a proton for a nucleus, this leaves the crew exposed to dangerous ionising radiation that breaks chemical bonds and damages DNA. "Hydrogen atoms are unavoidable space mines," says Edelstein.

The fatal dose of radiation for a human is 6 sieverts. Edelstein's calculations show that the crew would receive a radiation dose of more than 10,000 sieverts within a second. Intense radiation would also weaken the structure of the spacecraft and damage its electronic instruments.

Slow down and live, Mr. Sulu.

From New Scientist. Thanks to @Nyrath for the tip on this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 2/18/2010)

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