Saturday, February 20, 2010

Traveling at Warp Speed Would Kill You

... but not due to what you might think!

William Edelstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, has thought of another scenario on why those people on the Starship Enterprise would not have survived traveling through space at close to the speed of light. And it has nothing to do with the contortions of warped spacetime either. It is more basic and more well-known that that.

“I put in the Star Trek thing cause it would be dramatic,” he explains. The point of the paper was to really look at the impact of radiation at high speeds, he said. When you travel at high speeds in space “you are basically plowing through hydrogen,” he explained. “What actually happens as soon as they encounter the ship, the atoms split into protons and electrons and the protons mainly go through you and do damage.”

Edelstein said in an interview with the Star that the problem is when travelling in space at close to light speed hydrogen turns into “intense radiation” that kills humans and destroys electronic instrumentation. Even a ship’s hull of 10 centimetres in thickness would do nothing in terms of preventing damage.

In his presentation he said that a fatal dose of radiation for humans is six sieverts. And with his calculations a crew would receive a dose of more than 10,000 sieverts within a second.

So forget about the stuff that we barely know of. Just simple rudimentary high energy collisions that we already know of, and its radiation effects, which we also know of quite well, can already kill you.

Tough luck, space travelers!



Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, science fiction writers have long been aware of this. Possible solutions are

1 Use the fuel as a radiation shield in front of the living quarters and electronics

2 Fire lasers ahead to ionise the hydrogen, then deflect the electrons and protons with magnetic fields (or even use them as fuel)

quantasham said...

It would be more constructive to estimate a fatal velocity for space travels. Would the 0.1% fatal velocity be 3% of speed of light? or 7%?

But I would say this estimation would be impossible to make unless real experiments on rabbits / mice are performed.

SY said...

It is possible that some form of magnetic shielding (modeled like Earth's) generated by the space ship will deflect the hydrogen when the space ship is traveling at a fraction of c.

Teresa said...

Warp speed in Star Trek is subspace travel, which happens at super-luminal speeds (in which matter collisions do not apply), not near-luminal. Anyway, ships in Star Trek have deflector shields, consisting of, among others, gravitons, and are thus explained as acting as protection while travelling at near-luminal speeds.