Speed Kills?

Father & Son team, William and Arthur Edelstein discuss one of the dangers of near lightspeed travel in their paper published just last month: Speed kills: Highly relativistic spaceflight would be fatal for passengers and instruments [citation: 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.] They highlight the lethality of the high-energy proton head-wind that the Interstellar Medium (ISM) becomes when moving at near light-speed, which they define as above about ~0.9c.

I hadn’t realised the Edelsteins finally published their work until a Facebook friend, Jay Real, sent me a link. Of course these issues have been discussed in the literature for years so their discussion is nothing new – but welcome nonetheless as an explicit statement of the problem. High relativistic speeds are difficult to achieve, so most vehicles would probably stay below ~0.9c unless something exotic appeared, like an easy way of making one of Sonny’s warp-drive fields for rapid sub-light travel. In our part of the Galaxy the proton flux is much lower than the 1.8 protons/cc assumed by the Edelsteins. Some hot bubbles in the Local ISM go down to ~0.01-0.05 protons/cc and the local clouds are ~0.1-0.2/cc. This doesn’t change the results very much, but does lessen the local applicability.

Their analysis focuses chiefly on mass-shielding – big enough chunks of material to absorb the incoming flux. Magnetic shielding is mentioned dismissively, but I think that’s premature. Workable designs using known materials exist which can deflect 10 GeV cosmic rays, the equivalent of flying at 0.995c. Advanced superconductors, which will be needed for antimatter containment, plasma nozzles, magnetic-sails, will allow even higher protection levels. Thus I submit the Edelsteins’ negativity is premature.

The energy flux of interstellar matter hitting the ship can cause a lot of heating. If the ISM is just 100,000 atoms per cubic meter the flux is equivalent to 536 K temperature at 0.866 c. Peak temperature during re-entry is 2700 K for a moonflight – that level is reached at about 0.997c. Of course a starship wouldn’t just absorb that heat on its forward surfaces. A magnetic deflector would channel most of it away- but deflecting particles makes them lose momentum as high energy photons (x-rays) which would need to be shielded against. And the shield would get HOT! Fast starships would need to be long and narrow to minimise the energy absorbed. An x-ray reflective diamond coating could be used, but will need to be keep highly reflective while operating. Maintenance will be tricky!

As an example of the kinds of particle energies we can handle the Large Hadron Collider regularly bends a high energy stream of particles into a circle – the protons in the beam have a speed of 0.99999999c when it’s at full power. Cosmic-rays can reach much higher energies and need protection against. However the very highest energy cosmic rays are very rare, so only lower energy particles need deflecting in a crew habitat. The ones of biological concern, due to their numbers, are in the 1-10 GeV range. If we can deflect 10 GeV protons coming at us from our motion through space, then cosmic rays aren’t an issue.

Aberration comes into play at such high-speeds – the direction of origin of incoming particles and photons starts piling up directly in front of the starship. I would suggest the best protection at very high speed might be a “diffuser” – a high intensity magnet held far forward of the starship’s main hull which deflects the charged particles and creates a “shadow cone” behind it. The faster we go, for the same magnetic intensity, the further forward we put the diffuser. We fly, in safety, in its shadow thanks to aberration concentrating all the radiation to directly in front of us.

If we can deflect particles up to LHC energies, then how far can we accelerate at 1 gee? The acceleration distance required to increment the time-distortion/gamma factor (call it the TDF) by 1 is about 1 light year at 1 gee. At 0.99 c the TDF is about 7. So it takes about 6 light-years (because we start with TDF = 1) to get to 0.99c. To reach 0.9999c (TDF = 70) takes about 69 light years. Thanks to the time distortion, on ship the trip-time is much less. Remember a light-year is a distance, but as we’re flying so close to light-speed the ship is seen to take about 70 years to travel 69 light-years. A speed of 0.999999c (TDF = 700) takes 700 years Earth-time and 699 light-years of distance, but on the ship only just over 7 years have passed. If we decide to stop, then another 7 years ship time, 700 Earth-time, and 699 light years is needed – meaning we’ve flown 1398 light years in 14 years ship-time. But let’s push on. We’re pushing to TDF = 7,000 (0.99999999c) so the distance is 6,999 light-years, 7,000 years Earth-time, about 9.5 years onboard ship. Thus we could travel 13,998 light years and stop, in 19 years of our time, if can protect against proton energies equal to the LHC.

Outer Planets in a Hurry(ish)

In a 2005 paper Craig Williams and crew, from the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, improved on their 1998 fusion propelled Outer Planets vehicle – and dubbed it the “Discovery II”, inspired by the fictional “Discovery” from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The improved version massed 1,690 tonnes fully loaded with propellant, some 861 tonnes of slush hydrogen propelled to several hundred kilometres per second by fusing 11 tonnes of D-He3. Full throttle and the “Discovery II” promised a trip-time of 118 days to Jupiter and 212 days to Saturn, which is faster than the fictional version.

Intergalactic Travel – Best Way To Andromeda?

If we’re sufficiently patient, M31 is coming towards the Milky Way and should arrive in about 3 billion years or so. Intergalactic Travel is easy, given aeons.

M31, the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, some 2.5 million light-years away.

However, if we’re talking mere megayears, then the trip to M31 and beyond requires boosting the transit speed. If we can accelerate at a continuous acceleration – undergoing so-called “hyperbolic motion” – then the ship-board time can be reduced to arbitrarily low values. With the proviso we can supply sufficient energy and protect ourselves from the high-energy photon/particle bath that cosmic-rays and the Cosmic Microwave Background both become. Aberration – the distortion apparent direction of objects moving towards the observer – means the incoming radiation becomes ever more restriction to dead-ahead, making mitigation somewhat easier.

Slower trips, at constant fractions of the speed of light, require the passengers/payload to remain in some kind of stasis, else the billennia will inexorably erode their viability. Alternatively a World-Ship is sent, sufficiently well provisioned to last several million years. Back in 1987 Burruss & Colwell proposed such a concept, with a vast 1,000 km wide World-Ship, 50 billion passengers, and a cruise speed of 0.4c. The antimatter fuel required would be the equivalent of several days worth of the Sun’s total luminosity, so it would require at least a Kardashev Type II Civilization dedicated to the task to achieve it.

A World-Ship or a whole World? What if we sent an Earth-mass planet, using tricky orbital maneuvering around the 4.2 million solar-mass black-hole in the Milky Way’s Core as our accelerator? A Type III Civilization, with control over the Galaxy’s resources, would surely be able to arrange such a minor rearrangement of masses in the Core, flinging the Intergalactic Planet-Ship outwards at 0.5c. But what would it require to stop in the target Galaxy?

Given the right materials a magnetic-sail might do the job. We can slow an Earth-Ship from 0.5c to 0.005c in about 550,000 years (11% of the trip-time) over a braking distance of about 36,000 light-years. The sail would be 13.4 AU in radius with a super-current of 68 giga-amps and a mass of about 15.4 quadrillion tonnes (if its density is about that of carbon nanotubes.) Thus immensely BIG and probably immensely strong. At the “wire” (1.5 metres in radius) the field strength is 9,240 tesla, which is about 100 times higher than the highest critical magnetic field strength of known super-conductors. Thus not material we presently possess.