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How fast would a hypothetical spacecraft need to get to experience significant heating from interaction with the interstellar medium (ISM)? Significant, in this context, means a steady-state temperature (that at which radiative cooling balances the heat being generated) of a few hundred K or more. I am considering both the ISM and blueshifted photons here.

The means by which a spacecraft could reach such speeds are immaterial, or if it can be done at all, are irrelevant to this question.

An ideal answer will include a formula from which the temperature can be calculated for any velocity.

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Interstellar space has about 100 ions, mostly protons and corresponding electrons, per cubic meter. So assume that we have a surface area of material one square meter in area with $\gamma=2$ or velocity $v=.867c$. The total energy of a proton impacting this surface is $E=\gamma mc^2$ and the kinetic energy is $K=(\gamma-1)mc^2$. In one second this square meter of surface sweeps out a volume of $1.5\times 10^8m^3$ which means it impacts around $1.5\times 10^{10}$ ions. Now the proton has mass $1.7\times 10^{-27}kg$ and if this energy is absorbed in this material it would absorb $2.2\times 10^{-1}$ joules of energy every second. The reader can make a table with higher $\gamma$.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does length contraction also need to be considered here? $\endgroup$ – Demi Jul 20 at 5:12
  • $\begingroup$ Not really, for even if one thinks there is a Lorentz contraction of the distance this $1m^2$ area sweeps out the number of ions in the volume swept out is the same. $\endgroup$ – Lawrence B. Crowell Jul 20 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ Does ablation add any energy to the remaining material? That is, any proton or electron hitting the spacecraft at ~0.87c is energetic enough to ionize the surface material. At lower energies, the energy imparted before ejecting anything is minimal but I am not sure how much this matters at higher energies. $\endgroup$ – honeste_vivere Jul 22 at 0:07

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