What is Interstellar Space?

Glittering Metropolis of Stars
Glittering Metropolis of Stars


The boundary of what is known, that place known as the great frontier, has always intrigued and enticed us. The mystery of the unknown, the potential for discovery, the fear, the uncertainty; that place that exists just beyond the edge has got it all! At one time, planet Earth contained many such places for explorers, vagabonds and conquerors. But unfortunately, we’ve run out of spaces to label “here be dragons” here at home. Now, humanity must look to the stars to find such places again. These areas, the vast stretches of space that fall between the illuminated regions where stars sit, is what is known as Interstellar Space. It can be the space between stars but also can refer to the space between galaxies.

On the whole, this area of space is defined by its emptiness. That is, there are no stars or planetary bodies in these regions that we know of. That does not mean, however, that there is absolutely nothing there. In fact, interstellar areas do contain quantities of gas, dust, and radiation. In the first two cases, this is what is known as interstellar medium (or ISM), the matter that fills interstellar space and blends smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic space. The energy that occupies the same volume, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, is known as the interstellar radiation field. On the whole, the ISM is thought to be made up primarily of plasma (aka. ionized hydrogen gas) because its temperature appears to be high by terrestrial standards.

The nature of the interstellar medium has received the attention of astronomers and scientists over the centuries. The term first appeared in print in the 17th century in the works of Sir Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, both of whom were referring to the spaces that fell between stars. Before the development of electromagnetic theory, early physicists believed that space must be filled with an invisible “aether” in order for light to pass through it. It was not until the 20th century though that deep photographic imaging and spectroscopy that scientists were able to postulate that matter and gas existed in these regions. The discovery of cosmic waves in 1912 was a further boon, leading to the theory that interstellar space was pervaded by them. With the advent of ultraviolet, x-ray, microwave, and gamma ray detectors, scientists have been able to “see” these kinds of energy at work in interstellar space and confirm their existence.

Many satellites have been launched with the intention of sending back information from interstellar space. These include the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft which have cleared the known boundaries of the Solar System and passed into the heliopause. They are expected to continue to operate for the next 25 to 30 years, sending back data on magnetic fields and interstellar particles.

We have written many articles about interstellar space for Universe Today. Here’s an article about deep space, and here’s an article about interstellar space travel.

If you’d like more information on the Interstellar Space, here’s a link to Voyager’s Interstellar Mission Page, and here’s the homepage for Interstellar Science.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.


Probing Exoplanets

Sometimes topics segue perfectly. With the recent buzz about habitable planets, followed by the raining on the parade articles we’ve had about the not insignificant errors in the detections of planets around Gliese 581 as well as finding molecules in exoplanet atmospheres, it’s not been the best of times for finding life. But in a comment on my last article, Lawrence Crowell noted: “You can’t really know for sure whether a planet has life until you actually go there and look on the ground. This is not at all easy, and probably it is at best possible to send a probe within a 25 to 50 light year radius.”

This is right on the mark and happens to be another topic that’s been under some discussion on arXiv recently in a short series of paper and responses. The first paper, accepted to the journal Astrobiology and led by Jean Schneider of the Observatory of Paris-Meudon, seeks to describe “the far future of exoplanet direct characterization”. In general, this paper discusses where the study of exoplanets could go from our current knowledge base. It proposes two main directions: Finding more planets to better survey the parameter space planets inhabit, or more in depth, long-term studying of the planets we do know.

But perhaps the more interesting aspect of the paper, and the one that’s generated a rare response, is what can be done should we detect a planet with promising characteristics relatively nearby. They first propose trying to directly image the planet’s surface and calculate the diameter of a telescope capable of doing so would be roughly half as large as the sun. Instead, if we truly wish to get a direct image, the best bet would be to go there. They quickly address a few of the potential challenges.

The first is that of cosmic rays. These high energy particles can wreak havoc on electronics. The second is simple dust grains. The team calculates that an impact with “a 100 micron interstellar grain at 0.3 the speed of light has the same kinetic energy than a 100 ton body at 100 km/hour”. With present technology, any spacecraft equipped with sufficient shielding would be prohibitively massive and difficult to accelerate to the velocities necessary to make the trip worthwhile.

But Ian Crawford, of the University of London, thinks that the risk posed by such grains may be overstated. Firstly, Crawford believes Schneider’s requirement of 30% of the speed of light is somewhat overzealous. Instead, most proposals of interstellar travel by probes generally use a value of 10% of the speed of light. In particular, the most exhaustive proposal yet created, (the Daedalus project) only attempted to achieve a velocity of 0.12c. However, the ability to produce such a craft was well beyond the means at the time. But with the advent of miniaturization of many electronic components, the prospect may need to be reevaluated.

Aside from the overestimate on necessary velocities, Crawford suggests that Schneider’s team overstated the size of dust grains. In the solar neighborhood, dust grains are estimated to be nearly 100 times smaller than reported by Schneider’s team. The combination of the change in size estimation and that of velocity takes the energy released on collision from a whopping 4 x 107 Joules, to a mere 4.5 Joules. At absolute largest, recent studies have shown that the upper limit for dust particles is more in the range of 4.5 micrometers.

Lastly, Crawford suggests that there may be alternative ways to offer shielding than the brute force wall of mass. If a spacecraft were able to detect incoming particles using radar or another technique, it is possible that it could destroy the incoming particles using lasers, or deflect it using a electromagnetic field.

But Schneider wasn’t finished. He issued a response to Crawford’s response. In it, he criticizes Crawford’s optimistic vision of using nuclear or anti-matter propulsion systems. He notes that, thus far, nuclear propulsion has only been able to produce short impulses instead of continuous thrust and that, although some electronics have been miniaturized, the best analogue yet developed, the National Ignition Facility, is, “with all its control and cooling systems, is presently quite a non-miniaturized building.”

Anti-matter propulsion may be even more difficult. Currently, our ability to produce anti-matter is severely limited. Schneider estimates that it would take 200 terrawatts of energy to produce the required amounts. Meanwhile, the overall energy of the entire Earth is only 20 terrawatts.

In response to the charge of overestimation, Schneider notes that, although such large dust grains would be rare, but “even two lethal or severe collisions are prohibitory”, but does not go on to make any honest estimations of what the actual probability of such a collision would be.

Ultimately, Schneider concludes that all discussion is, at best, extremely preliminary. Before any such undertaking would be seriously considered, it would require “a precursor mission to secure the technological concept, including shielding mechanisms, at say 500 to 1000 Astronomical Units.” Ultimately, Schneider and his team seems to remind us that the technology is not yet there and that there are legitimate threats we must address. Crawford, on the other hand suggests that some of these challenges are ones that we may already be well on the road to addressing and constraining.