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  Interstellar dust/matter distribution

+ 6 like - 0 dislike

It is known that one of the main problems of interstellar flight is a presence of matter between stars in form of very fine dust and huge asteroids. Which can slowly (or fast) destroy any ship.

What are the most recent estimations about the concentration and size distribution of interstellar matter? From very small to high scales. Particularly i am interested in the local group of stars.

Update II: smallest object still named as a meteorite (Yamato8333) is about 12mg in mass and roughly 2mm in diameter.

Update: Below is an image of an interplanetary dust particle (IDP, not Yamato8333).


"IDP composed of nanometre-sized mineral grains and organic matter." (Credit: N. Spring)

Original post here.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Asphir Dom
asked Jul 17, 2013 in Astronomy by Asphir Dom (30 points) [ no revision ]

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Michael Brown
For example, I am interested what is concentration of 1mm particles per cubic meter at the "edge" of solar system. Would appreciate any references to papers which try to estimate that.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Asphir Dom
I mean dust particles 1 millimeter in diameter. Pieces of "star rocks".

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Asphir Dom
Image below is not Yamato 8333, it is random image of IDP.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Asphir Dom

3 Answers

+ 6 like - 0 dislike

Do collisions with interstellar dust and other small particles provide a significant threat when traveling in a space ship?

We do have lots of data on this for spaceship Earth. In this Letter to Nature, the following figure appears:

Number of objects hitting Earth annually with an impact energy exceeding a given kiloton figure

Shown is the expected number of annual events exceeding a given kiloton TNT explosive power. Notice that the energy range displayed covers 14 orders of magnitude.

Now, interstellar travel in a spaceship will be different from circling around the sun on a huge piece of rock. Obviously, your spaceship will be much smaller. This can be compensated for by scaling back the hit frequency with the ratio of the spaceship:earth surface area. Secondly, Earth moves within the solar system where the hit frequency with objects is most certainly higher than in interstellar space. However, no matter the exact details of your spaceship, your journey will start with a number of years travel through the solar system. From a hit-frequency risk assessment perspective it is wise to focus on this part of your trip. Thirdly, Earth gravitationally attracts any objects, your spaceship much less so. This effect is not significant, as the average speed at which small objects collide with Earth is 20.3 km/s, well above Earth's escape velocity of 11.2 km/s that describes the velocity change due to Earth's gravity.

Finally, I note that the speed we achieve with our current space flight technology is driven by gravitational effects (e.g. gravitational slingshots) and therefore of the same order of magnitude as the speed at which Earth travels through the solar system.

The conclusion of all this is that if your spaceship is roughly spherical with a diameter of say 4 m (3,000,000 times smaller than earth, and hence in terms of surface area $10^{13}$ times smaller than Earth), you will observe a number of objects hitting your spaceship annually with an impact energy exceeding a given kiloton figure, that is 13 orders of magnitude smaller than shown in the figure.

Unfortunately, the figure shows no data smaller than $10^{-5}$ kiloton TNT (10 kg TNT, corresponding to a 5 cm (2 inch) size particle with density $3 \ g/cm^3$ hitting your spaceship at a speed of 20 km/s). Such an 10 kg TNT explosion would certainly destroy your spaceship. However, the frequency of occurrence is $10^5$ per year scaled back by 13 orders of magnitude, or $10^{-8}$ events larger than 10 kg TNT per year.

That is a hit frequency one can live with.

We can extrapolate to less energetic events, using the observed scaling law (the slope of -0.9 shown in the figure). You would need to extrapolating to a billion time smaller events (events larger than an utterly insignificant 0.01 mg TNT explosive power) to reach an annual hit frequency.

My conclusion is that space, and even our solar system, is pretty empty. At the speeds at which we travel, collisions with cosmic dust pose no major threat to space flight.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Johannes
answered Jul 20, 2013 by Johannes (280 points) [ no revision ]
Thanks for a nice answer and argumentation! I decided to award bounty to you, since you covered well the situation with interstellar object sizes above cm range. However, data on cm and micrometer range has not been covered so i decided not to close the question yet.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Asphir Dom
+ 3 like - 0 dislike

The average density of the intersteller medium is 10^6 atoms per cubic meter. I got that straight out of M. M. Woolfson, On the Origin of Planets (Imperial College Press, London, 2011). I used this textbook as a reference for a paper on planet formation, it's quite good.

For the sake of comparison (and a sloppy comparison at that), one litre of air contains roughly 10^22 molecules.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-24 03:44 (UCT), posted by SE-user Sigma
answered Jul 18, 2013 by Sigma (65 points) [ no revision ]
+ 1 like - 0 dislike

If you check Reference 2 of the Wikipedia article "Interstellar medium". , it links to an article which exists somewhere on ArXiV. Somewhere... . According to the article, the densities are:

Molecular Clouds: 100 to 1000000 atoms/ml.
CNM: 20 to 50 atoms/ml.

WNM: 0.2 to 0.5 atoms/ml.

WIM: 0.2 to 0.5 atoms/ml.

H II: 100 to 10000 atoms/ml.

Coronal gas: 0.0001 to 0.01 atoms/ml.

Coronal gas isn't dense at all! (even less dense than man-made vacuums!) . ...

answered Jul 20, 2013 by dimension10 (1,950 points) [ revision history ]

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