What would exactly happen to the crew of a spacecraft travelling at 99.999998 per cent the speed of light? William Edelstein, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, has the answer: It'd hurt. A lot.
Using Einstein's special theory of relativity, Edelstein - an expert in radiology - concluded that astronauts will die instantly from radiation overload, thanks to the kinetic energy of the atoms surrounding the ship. The hydrogen atoms floating in the empty space would reach 7 teraelectron volts, which is the equivalent of staying at the centre of the Large Hadron Collider set at maximum power. Even with a 10cm-thick aluminium hull, 99 per cent of the energy will pass, destroying humans and circuitry inside.
His bottom line: "Hydrogen atoms are unavoidable space mines."
Thankfully, spacecrafts could be a lot more than gigantic engines and 10cm hulls. Theoretical alternatives like the Alcubierre drive ship or Dr Obousy's warp-drive spacecraft won't travel faster than the speed of light, but warp space around it. And who knows what else waits to be discovered in our quest to reach the stars. After all, humans are still trying to figure out most of the Universe around us. [New Scientist]