How long would it take for an interstellar spaceship to reach Alpha Centauri?

In summary, a feasible constant acceleration rate for an interstellar spacecraft could range from 0.1g to 1g, depending on the technology and design of the ship. However, a rate of 0.1g may be more realistic for a long-term journey in terms of balancing acceleration and energy consumption while minimizing negative effects on the crew.
  • #1
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I'm writing a science fiction story and have a basic understanding of theoretical propulsion systems (ramjets, ion drives, solar sails, etc.). But I'm also trying to make my story plausible. So, that means no faster-than-light travel, infinite energy sources, artificial gravity generators, etc.

In the story I want to consider the travel time and acceleration experienced by the occupants of a ship traveling from Earth to the Alpha Centauri star system (about 4 light years away) in the mid-22nd century.

My early assumption was that the ship would travel at a constant .2c, thus a travel time of 20 years. But after doing a bit of reading, that doesn't make any sense; the ship must, of course, accelerate. I am now assuming that the ship will constantly accelerate to the mid-point of the journey, turn around, and negatively accelerate until it reaches its destination. The question, then, is the value of acceleration.

For normal operations, a large section of the ship rotates to provide a 1G (9.81 m/s^2) centripetal force for the crew. But during interstellar transit, most of the occupants are in suspended animation/cryosleep/hibernation (perhaps not as realistic). Via the rotating section or engine acceleration, does the ship need to maintain an acceleration of 1G for the crew to remain healthy?

I suppose it depends on the ship's design; that is, whether the engines are located at the "rear" and the decks are located parallel to direction of travel, or the engines are at the "bottom", and the decks are perpendicular to direction of travel.

According to an online calculator I found (I would post the link but cannot since I am a new user), an acceleration of 1G and distance of 4.3LY would only take about 6 Earth years. That is dramatically shorter than what I had figured for the story. Halving the acceleration to 0.5G only takes 7.2 years. So is there a reason for the ship's acceleration to be so high, and in the future is that conceivable for something like a nuclear fusion-powered ion rocket?

At 0.1G, travel time is 13.6 years, which might work into the scale of the story a little better. According to that calculator, acceleration has to be taken down to .01G before travel time takes around 40 years. But at such low acceleration, would the crew become prone to effects of microgravity, or could the rotation section of the ship take care of that?

Core question: What is a feasible constant acceleration rate, in terms of g, for an interstellar spacecraft ?

I want to make it feasible for hard sci-fi fans. I wish I had some more knowledge of physics to bring to the table, but I appreciate any discussion or help. Good day. :)
 
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  • #2
Welcome to PF!

If you haven't been there already you can perhaps find a bit of inspiration in some of the serious design studies made so far, like project Orion [1], project Daedalus [2] and especially project Longshot [3] and [4], and perhaps combined with more speculative concepts like fuel scooping [5] or beam riding [6]. You can find an overview of the different possible technologies at [7].

As you probably are aware, going to answer your question is difficult and relies heavily on imagining available technology and social structure at the time of your story, while still adhering to some of the "hard limits" of physics, like conservation of energy, material limits in temperature and energy density, and so on. If it were me writing a story like that, I would probably try to eliminate the "wild" solutions first and then pick one of the solutions that goes nicely what you story is trying to tell. For instance, if you want to portrait the life on a generation ship then you obviously have to select a solution that utilizes generation ships.[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion )
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Longshot
[4] http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19890007533_1989007533.pdf
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bussard_ramjet
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beam-powered_propulsion
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstellar_travel
 
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  • #3

First of all, I want to commend you for wanting to make your science fiction story as realistic and plausible as possible. It's always important to have a solid understanding of the science behind your story, especially in a genre like science fiction.

As for your question about a feasible constant acceleration rate for an interstellar spacecraft, it really depends on the technology and resources available in the mid-22nd century. However, there are a few things to consider:

1. The human body can withstand accelerations up to about 5g before experiencing negative effects. So, any acceleration rate below that should be safe for the crew.

2. The faster the acceleration, the shorter the travel time. However, this also means that the ship will need more energy to maintain that acceleration. So, there needs to be a balance between acceleration and energy consumption.

3. The type of propulsion system used will also play a role in determining the feasible acceleration rate. For example, ion drives can provide a constant low acceleration over a long period of time, while nuclear fusion-powered engines can provide a higher acceleration rate for a shorter period of time.

4. The design of the ship will also affect the acceleration rate. As you mentioned, if the engines are located at the "rear" and the decks are parallel to the direction of travel, then the acceleration can be spread out evenly throughout the ship. However, if the engines are located at the "bottom" and the decks are perpendicular to the direction of travel, then the acceleration may be felt more strongly in certain areas of the ship.

Based on these considerations, a feasible constant acceleration rate for an interstellar spacecraft could range from 0.1g to 1g. A rate of 0.1g may be more realistic for a long-term journey, as it would still provide a relatively short travel time while minimizing the negative effects on the crew.

I hope this helps and good luck with your story!
 

Related to How long would it take for an interstellar spaceship to reach Alpha Centauri?

1. How far is Alpha Centauri from Earth?

Alpha Centauri is approximately 4.37 light years away from Earth, which equals to about 25 trillion miles.

2. How fast would the spaceship need to travel to reach Alpha Centauri?

The spaceship would need to travel at a speed of at least 10% of the speed of light, or about 67 million miles per hour, to reach Alpha Centauri within a reasonable amount of time.

3. How long would it take for the spaceship to reach Alpha Centauri at that speed?

At a speed of 10% of the speed of light, it would take approximately 43 years for the spaceship to reach Alpha Centauri.

4. Can humans survive a journey to Alpha Centauri?

It is currently unknown if humans would be able to survive a journey to Alpha Centauri, as it would require advanced technology and resources to sustain life for such a long journey.

5. Is there any way to shorten the travel time to Alpha Centauri?

One potential way to shorten the travel time is through the use of advanced propulsion systems, such as nuclear or solar sails, which could potentially increase the speed of the spaceship and reduce the travel time. However, these technologies are still in the development phase and would require significant advancements to be feasible for interstellar travel.

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