Damage to Relativistic Interstellar Spacecraft by ISM Impact Gas Accumulation

Jon Drobny, Alexander N. Cohen, Davide Curreli, Philip Lubin, Maria G. Pelizzo, Maxim Umansky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As part of the NASA Starlight collaboration, we look at the implications of impacts with the interstellar medium (ISM) on a directed energy-driven relativistic spacecraft. The spacecraft experiences a stream of MeV/nucleon impacts along the forward edge primarily from hydrogen and helium nuclei. The accumulation of implanted slowly diffusing gas atoms in solids drives damage through the meso-scale processes of bubble formation, blistering, and exfoliation. This results in macroscopic changes to material properties and, in the cases of blistering and exfoliation, material erosion via blister rupture and delamination. Relativistic hydrogen and helium at constant velocity will stop in the material at a similar depth, as predicted by Bethe-Bloch stopping and subsequent simulations of the implantation distribution, leading to a mixed hydrogen and helium system similar to that observed within fusion plasma-facing components. However, the difference in depth of near-surface gas atoms with respect to the direction of exposure means that previously developed empirical models of blistering cannot be used to predict bubble formation or blistering onset. In this work, we present a model of the local gas concentration threshold for material blistering from exposure to the ISM at relativistic speeds. Expected effects on the spacecraft and mitigation strategies are also discussed. The same considerations apply to the Breakthrough Starshot mission.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number248
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 20 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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