If you've ever fantasized about hopping from galaxy to galaxy aboard the Starship Enterprise, you may want to also imagine a super-powered radiation suit. Space.com reports that traveling at warp speed would blast ship and crew with more lethal radiation than man or instrument could handle. Physicist William Edelstein of Johns Hopkins University told the American Physical Society that stray atoms of hydrogen gas would actually go right through the ship traveling close to light speed, effectively microwaving its passengers.
Edelstein came to this conclusion based on Einstein’s special theory of relativity. If a ship is traveling at a low speed, space radiation would not be a problem. But Einstein proposed that a starship traveling at just 99 percent of the speed of light would get a radiation dose from hydrogen of 61 sieverts per second. This would present a beyond-lethal dose of radiation to humans.
Experts liken this blast of radiation to standing in front of the high-energy proton beam from the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. There are two hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter on average in space. This means that these atoms would transform into “deadly galactic space mines” for a spaceship traveling through them close to the speed of light. This also would completely destroy the ship’s instrumentation.
Space.com reports that this revelation did not sit well with the American Physical Society, a group that reacted to Edelstein’s revelations with gasps of horror. Several protested that Captain Kirk and his crew would still be alive because of radiation-resisting shields. But Edelstein insists that solid shields would add a mass that would make traveling close to light speed impossible and that electromagnetic shields would be difficult to create. As Edelstein told Space.com, "Getting between stars is a huge problem unless we think of something really, really different. I'm not saying that we know everything and that it's impossible. I'm saying it's kind of impossible based on what we know right now."
Edelstein concludes that the difficulties presented by space travel may be one of the reasons aliens have yet to land on our doorstep. Ultimately, he offers a modest take on his Star Trek-buzz killing theory. "I'm not claiming this is a brilliant new discovery or anything. I'm just saying that it's interesting."
For further reading: Warp speed will kill you