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Antimatter For Deep Space Propulsion

Great ideas fan out in unexpected directions, which is why James Bickford now looks at antimatter in a new light. Bickford (Draper Laboratory, Cambridge MA) realized that an adaptation of Robert Bussard’s interstellar ramscoop might have its uses in collecting antimatter. The concept grew out of the realization that antimatter sources were available not only near the Earth but farther out in the Solar System, where antiparticles could be collected and used to boost spacecraft initially to speeds of 100 kilometers per second. That’s sufficient for interstellar precursor missions outside the heliosphere, including the possibility of getting a payload to the Sun’s gravitational focus, where a new kind of space-based astronomy waits to be exploited.

Refine the process enough and you start talking about even greater speeds through more efficient antimatter collection, one great benefit being that instead of producing the stuff in Earth-bound particle accelerators, you’re actually mining natural supplies. Bickford was kind enough to pass along his complete final report for NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), one of the last projects funded by that agency as it encountered the kind of budgetary crises familiar to deep space researchers and closed. It’s a fascinating document that I want to discuss over several days this week (though perhaps not consecutively, because we’re about to get some interesting exoplanet news).

Before we get into collecting it, ponder the beauties of antimatter itself. The annihilation of a particle with its antiparticle liberates the entire rest mass of each as energy. Indeed, the process is so spectacular — ten orders of magnitude greater than chemical reactions, and between 102 to 103 more efficient than nuclear — that antiprotons on the order of tens of nanograms might be sufficient to reach the 100 km/sec velocities mentioned above. Clearly, larger quantities of antimatter expand the options enormously, offering higher speeds still up to the relativistic velocities needed for interstellar missions.

Bickford’s numbers on antimatter’s potential further drive the point home. The annihilation of a single kilogram of antimatter releases the energy equivalent of thirty million barrels of oil. If you work out worldwide energy production per year in these terms, you find that the total is equivalent to 2200 kg of antimatter. Contrasting sharply with antimatter’s potential, however, is the price. Using the methods available today, which rely on extracting antimatter from sub-atomic collision debris in accelerators, the worldwide output is in the low nanogram per year range. The cost: an estimated $100 trillion per gram, give or take a few megabucks.

That’s one reason that antimatter propulsion concepts have taken a sharp turn toward the realistic after heady earlier speculations. Antimatter Catalyzed Microfission/Fusion, which uses antiprotons to trigger a efficient form of nuclear fission, has been extensively studied at Pennsylvania State University, showing potential for interplanetary missions (Mars becomes reachable in about 45 days). And ACMF is, as it has to be, stingy with the antimatter, requiring only nanogram quantities. Steven Howe examined a variant of this approach in an earlier NIAC study, while Gerald Jackson produced a NIAC study on harvesting antimatter that would factor into Bickford’s later analysis.

Can we think about getting antimatter up to the microgram level? With ten micrograms of antiprotons, we can envision a 100-ton payload on a one-year round-trip mission to Jupiter. But how do we go about producing antimatter at this level, and where is the best place to produce it? In my next post on Bickford’s work, I want to contrast current production methods with the antimatter ‘harvesting’ option and explain why our own Solar System may serve as a renewable source of the fuel we need once we can build the infrastructure necessary to collect and deploy it. We’ll talk about these and other issues soon, and also discuss what technologies will have to reach an appropriate readiness level before we can put an efficient antimatter collector into operation.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mark Phelps November 5, 2007, 11:17

    Hello,great site,weekly must read for the cognisiti,l looked for the paper by Bickford,did I miss it in plain sight? The NIAC sites have some,one pdf link,that works,the others do not. Any help would be appreciated,
    Thanks again,

  • Administrator November 5, 2007, 11:22

    Mark, I don’t know how well the NIAC site is currently being maintained after the closure. The new Bickford report wasn’t there this morning when I looked. As soon as I can get an online link for it, I’ll post it here.

  • philw1776 November 5, 2007, 15:12

    Not a problem. I have a tiny microgram antimatter sample contained right here.
    Look ou…..

  • AlfaCentavra November 5, 2007, 17:51

    “we’re about to get some interesting exoplanet news” – COROT!!!

  • Bill LaLonde November 6, 2007, 6:02
  • Administrator November 6, 2007, 8:16

    Bill, that’s not the right report. What that link points to is Bickford’s Phase I final report; the Phase II report is the one I’m talking about, dated August of ’07. It’s not yet available on the NIAC site, but I may be able to set up a link to it here on Centauri Dreams.

  • Christopher L. Bennett November 6, 2007, 11:34

    There are natural supplies of antiparticles? Where? How? Are we talking your occasional antiproton or positron resulting from some kind of radioactive decay or cosmic-ray impact or something? Those would be pretty sparse, wouldn’t they?

  • Administrator November 6, 2007, 11:40

    Christopher, what Bickford looks at — and I’ll get into this in more detail here either later today or tomorrow — is high-energy galactic cosmic ray bombardment generating antiparticles through pair production. When you get into the vicinity of a planet with a strong magnetic field, larger fluxes become possible due to the interactions there. More on this soon, along with thoughts on collection strategies.

  • dad2059 November 6, 2007, 11:47

    The idea of collecting antiparticles en route would be great. Why not a quantum entanglement tele-system to collect the antiparticles into the Penning Trap? That way the concentration level of the natural particles wouldn’t matter as much.

    Of course it depends on the range of the tele-system.

  • johnF November 6, 2007, 11:52

    Although I’ve only skimmed through it the phase one report seems to be saying that the earth has a very sparse supply of antiprotons and positron, totalling somewhere between a few tenths and tens of nanograms, trapped in the magnetic field and radiation belts. These are created by several high energy processes, for example cosmic rays hitting particles in the exosphere, and some are collected from outside the earths environment by earths magnetic field. At the lower end of the predictions there might be medical or imaging uses for such small amounts of antimatter, at the upper end it might be usefull in propelling spacecraft. I’m more than abit skeptical about setting up the infrastructure to collect it, if it is there in large enough amounts to be usefull, but the phase two report should make a very interesting read nonetheless. Not that i’m pushy or impatient!

  • James Nicoll November 6, 2007, 12:07

    “When you get into the vicinity of a planet with a strong magnetic field, larger fluxes become possible due to the interactions there.”

    So Jupiter isn’t just the Panama Canal [1] of the Solar System, it’s also the Saudi Arabia?

    1: For example, sending payloads from Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids to Earth costs about 12 km/s but sending them via Jupiter gets it down as far as 3.5 km/s (But below 4.4 km/s, the cost in time is absurd).

  • Administrator November 6, 2007, 13:41

    I like that, Jupiter as the Saudi Arabia of the Solar System. But interestingly enough, it’s Saturn where the real action is. More on this tomorrow, when I’ll also get the report posted for download here. Right now I’ve got to check the exoplanet news conference.

  • Lubo November 11, 2007, 16:14

    What about the storage issue, still not solved?
    I had read somewhere an article, posted 2 years ago, and there was exhibited almost the same thing about antimatter status, what we see here. For 2 years there is no scientific breakthrough… We are still treading on the same place…

  • Norm Hansen December 2, 2007, 21:17

    Using Mirror Energy/Antimatter Energy, United States could achieve Energy Independence in 15 years. 200 kilograms of Mirror Matter/antimatter could replace 1 billion tons of coal, 4 billion barrels of oil (11 million barrels per day), and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Carbon dioxide levels can be reduced by 3.8 billion tons per year or over fifty percent.

  • Ron S December 3, 2007, 14:37

    From Norm’s web site:

    “At April 2002 joint meeting of American Physical Society and American Astronomical Society, he announced the discovery that comets are natural sources of antimatter. The greatest discovery since mankind discovered fire.”

    Good luck with your mining expeditions…

  • James M. Essig January 31, 2008, 3:44

    Hi Folks;

    It occurred to me that there might be other symmetries in particles and fields besides matter/antimatter duality and the proposed super symmetry.

    I once read a popularized science work during about the mid 1970’s in which the author suggested that perhaps we not only have matter and antimatter. But that matter could be broken down in some theoretical frameworks into positive normal matter and negative normal matter. Antimatter could be broken down into positive antimatter and negative antimatter or to use his words, anti-anti-matter. The author further went on to say positive normal matter could be broken down into positive, positive normal matter; negative, positive normal matter, and negative normal matter could be broken down into positive negative normal matter; and negative, negative, normal matter whereas positive antimatter could be broken down into positive, positive antimatter and negative, positive, antimatter; and negative antimatter could be broken down into negative, negative antimatter, and positive, negative antimatter Thus at this level there would be eight branches in the fractal tree describing mattergy. The next level would entail analogous sub-divisions for a total of 16 final fractal tree branches. Yet another level would entail 32 branches and so on where the number, N, of final fractal tree branches is equal to N = 2 EXP L where L is the counting number ordinality of the Lth level. This author even made the audacious but perhaps bravely bold comment that perhaps L can approach or equal infinity.

    Now what would these additional levels comprise in terms of concrete testable hypothesis and associated experimental evidence? Perhaps the existence of these would be finer structures is locked up in hidden space or space time dimensions which may be higher dimensional space or space time or parallel dimensional space or space time, be such parallel dimensional space and/or space time include 3 or 4 dimensions of space or space time similar to those we are familiar with or higher dimensional space or space times or subsets thereof.

    Perhaps another way such additional symmetries may be hidden is within any composite structure of particles that are currently held to be fundamental or of irreducible structure such as the leptons and quarks as well as perhaps even photons, gluons, the W- W+ and Znought weak force bosons, the graviton, and the Higgs Bosons as well as in the super symmetric counterparts to these particles, bosons and fermions alike. Granted that string theory proposes that fundamental particles exist as either closed or open loops of super strings that are viewed as fundamental within the mathematical frame work of string theory and the theory of branes, but what if the strings have a deeper composite structure that we have not or cannot ever practically probe.

    Alternatively, perhaps there are dualities in existence of strings defining the normal matter and antimatter normal matter particles as well as the normal super symmetric matter and antimatter super symmetric matter particles, perhaps in both fermions and bosons alike in both cases. Perhaps in each such duality branch, there are additional levels of dualities thus leading to the conjectured N = 2 EXP L rule mentioned above.

    Another way of representing the ordered set of any deeper symmetries might be to use the x1 axis to represent matter on one side of zero and antimatter on the other side of zero.. Perhaps filling in some or all of the real numbers along the axis continuum would represent all of the possible types of particles of matter and antimatter varieties provided there are the cardinality of Aleph (1) number of types of particles as such. Other symmetries could be represented by the entire continuum along an orthogonal axis x2, once again assuming that there are the cardinality of Aleph (1) numbers of such particles. Assuming the potentially unlimited bounds in the extent and variety of space or space time dimensions, numbers and types of universes with their own, either unique, or degenerate sets of physical laws, particles and fields, and constants of nature, one might organize the deeper symmetries and pair such on the axis x3, x4, …, x(Aleph(m)) wherein m might be any arbitrary finite, transfinite, or cardinality of infinite value.

    Perhaps all lines passing through the origin of (or center), and all the points on, the surface of an abstract sphere of xi dimensions with a radius of Aleph (1) can have such deeper symmetries assigned to them, perhaps even when i = omega or the ultimate indefinable cardinality of infinity.

    And perhaps, ultimately, this is only the beginning. It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps within the infinite depths of the physical and spiritual cosmos, nature abhors not creating everything that can be and yet also abhors not continuously creating all the more. For those who believe in the existence of an Almighty Creator or GOD, is there anything less than this that we can expect from GOD’s creative powers and activities. If GOD bothers to be utterly unspeakably incomprehensively above every name that can be named in this world and the world and life to come, above every concept that we can assign to GOD, inexpressibly exalted above all else that is under the Earth, on Earth, or in the Heavens above the Earth, to paraphrase the Bible, then why should he not be an ever creating megalomaniac when it comes to his ever ongoing work of creation. I am not trying to convert anybody here, but rather I am trying to share a little bit of encouragement in terms of “What Dreams May Come” by paraphrasing the Sacred Scripture again by the phrase, “The eye has not seen, and the ear has not heard, Nor has it so dawned on us what GOD has prepared for us. For now we look dimly as through a mirror, but then we shall see Him face to face as HE IS” as well as having all eternity to ponder even more extreme aspects of HIS BEING, many of which I think will make the concept of the HOLY TRINITY child’s play in comparison. I believe we will also have an eternity to explore, discover, and learn about ourselves and each other, both family, friends, and strangers alike, and that we will undergo eternal existential and ontological growth in the life of not only supernatural life and grace, but also such within our very own created nature. To paraphrase the Sacred Scripture again., “We are now called Sons and Daughters of GOD and indeed that is what we are by the grace of adoption, but what we will be has not yet come to light, although we will see HIM face to face, for then we will be like HIM.” Many modern Catholic theologians also assert that we will have all eternity to explore the vastness and incomprehensible richness of GODs creation both material and spiritual beings and entities alike, for what Almighty GOD would not over do his beloved creation with HIS almighty powers. What dreams may come! What dreams may come! What dreams may come! But first we have got lots of work to do and so therefore I say “Onward Ho! “To The Stars!”

    Note, once again, that I am not trying to convert anybody or proselytize any faith based creed here. For I am an absolute adherer to the belief that coming to know GOD is a deeply personal road that we all travel and aspire to whether we admit it or not even to ourselves and that all religious belief systems that aspire to promoting the well being and welfare of our fellow human beings and by extension, also that of our ETI brethren are inherently good. I am further a fundamental believer that all of us on Earth share an absolute fundamental moral equality before GOD in GODs mind. Whether or not we are Catholic, Evangelical, Southern Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, New Age, Atheist, Agnostic, or what have you, GOD loves us all equally and would walk to Calvary again and again for each one of us. It is has been said by certain Saintly pious Catholic theologians in centuries past that GOD values the dignity of all of HIS creation so much that even HIS DIVINE SON ,JESUS still greaves the fall of Satan from friendship with GOD. With such love, we can all have hope in a better future on Earth, in our relationships with our extraterrestrial fellow inhabitants and our brethren in our vast universe, and for the ultimate fulfillment of GOD’s eternal and forever ongoing plan according to HIS DiVINE ECONOMY through which he somehow watches over every single creature he has made with his DIVINE and LOVING CARE, even the creatures such as the fallen angles who have separated themselves from the vision of GOD in heaven by their disobedience. As one who professes to be Catholic, to be true to my faith, I have to say that GOD loves all of his creatures, all of us with a fiery spiritual passionate love with intensity beyond all imagination, and yes, even Satan, all of the fallen spirits and any human souls who by there free choice end up eternally separated from GOD. What else can we say of GOD, for GOD is perfect infinite unbounded love itself. Thus, with all of the uncertainty in the continued near term increases in funding of manned space programs, the depressing news about terrorist attacks and the dark forces that would lead mankind into the unthinkable battle of perhaps cosmic significance of the battle of Armageddon, the destruction of our planets ecosystems, and ever increasing hostility expressed among the U.S. presidential candidates and the growing problems of anger on our roadways etc., I offer a personal message of hope. When can build a civilization of love and hope. Ultimately, I believe that is our destiny.


    Your Friend Jim

  • Clement Vining April 25, 2009, 13:06

    What about collecting particles in route but not cooling them for storage and putting the proton, anti-proton, electrons and positrons in each a storage ring for short term storage. Then using the anti protons hot to supercharge fusion take out any high speed electrons and positron put in the storage ring for them. Take the high speed electron and positrons run them into plates with hole and produce very high electro static charges put this in condenser banks and use inverters to produce voltage. Any high speed protons collected run into tugston plates and produce more anti-particles to go into there storage ring. Anything over goes into a thrust manafold with the other thrust to increase mass at slower speed from a fusion rocket or magnetic beam and water for a plasma thrust with heavy mass at slower starting speed.