In Stephen Baxter’s wonderful novel Ark (Roc, 2010), a team of scientists works desperately to come up with an interstellar spacecraft while epic floods threaten the Earth. The backdrop gives Baxter the chance to work through many of our current ideas about propulsion, from starships riding a wave of nuclear explosions (Orion) to antimatter possibilities and on into Alcubierre warp drive territory. I won’t give away the solution, but will say that it partly involves antimatter used in an unorthodox way, and because Baxter’s is a near-term Earth, there simply isn’t enough antimatter to go around. That means getting to Jupiter first to harvest it.

Antimatter in space is an idea that James Bickford (Draper Laboratory) analyzed in a Phase II study for NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts, for he had realized that high-energy galactic cosmic rays interacting with the interstellar medium (and also with the upper atmospheres of planets in the Solar System) produce antimatter. In fact, Bickford’s calculations showed that about a kilogram of antiprotons enter the Solar System every second, though little of this reaches the Earth. To harvest some of this incoming antimatter, you need a planet with a strong magnetic field, so Jupiter is a natural bet for Baxter’s scientists, who go there to forage.

The odd thing, though, is that Saturn is actually a better source of antimatter than Jupiter, with 250 micrograms produced by reactions in the rings and injected into the magnetosphere every year. Bickford’s work showed that the process by which galactic cosmic rays produce antimatter isn’t as effective around Jupiter because its magnetic field shields the Jovian atmosphere and lowers the flux. A much larger flux reaches the atmosphere of Saturn. But Bickford also believed that our own Earth would be a good antimatter source, leading to the idea of using a plasma magnet — the scientist discusses using high temperature superconductors to form two pairs of 100-meter RF coils to manage this. The result is a kind of magnetic scoop that could trap antiparticles found in our planet’s radiation belts.

Image: Among sources of naturally occurring antimatter in our Solar System, Saturn may be the most useful. Credit: James Bickford.

Why go to the trouble of collecting antimatter from space? Because antimatter production on the order of one-trillionth of a gram per year, which is about what we can get out of today’s accelerator labs through high-energy particle collisions, isn’t enough to power up a lightbulb for more than a few seconds. Moreover, at today’s prices the stuff costs about $100 trillion per gram. This is why Robert Forward, who used to circulate an antimatter newsletter among colleagues and wrote extensively about its possibilities, proposed that one day we would build antimatter factories in space. Build a large enough solar-powered array and you could, he thought, come up with something on the order of a gram of antimatter per day.

Remember that as little as ten micrograms of antimatter might power a 100-ton payload on a one-year mission to Jupiter and you can see that one gram of antimatter a day is a bountiful supply. But Forward’s antimatter collector array was huge, 100 kilometers to the side, and well beyond today’s engineering. Thus the interest generated by the PAMELA satellite (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics) last year when it picked up more antiprotons in the region known as the South Atlantic Anomaly than had been expected.

This South Atlantic Anomaly is where the inner Van Allen radiation belt makes its closest approach to the Earth’s surface, which in turn creates a higher flux of energetic particles there. The PAMELA work showed that Bickford’s original NIAC analysis was correct — antimatter is indeed being produced near the Earth. Bickford went on to suggest that we could collect some 25 nanograms per day using his magnetic scoop, a process that if successful would prove orders of magnitude more cost effective than creating antimatter here on Earth.

So would Baxter’s doughty crew be able to harvest their antimatter much closer to home than Jupiter or Saturn? Maybe not. A new paper by Ronan Keane (Western Reserve Academy) and Wei-Ming Zhang (Kent State University) comes into play here. The authors have developed new thinking on antimatter propulsion, specifically on the magnetic nozzles that would be required to make it work. It’s important work and tomorrow I want to get into the propulsion aspects of it, but for today I note their comment on the PAMELA findings and antimatter. Here’s a quote:

The recent PAMELA discovery, in which the observed antiproton flux is three orders of magnitude above the antiproton background from cosmic rays, paves the way for possible harvesting of antimatter in space. Theoretical studies suggest that the magnetosphere of much larger planets like Jupiter would be even better for this purpose. If feasible, harvesting antimatter in space would completely bypass the obstacle of low energy efficiency when an accelerator is used to produce antimatter, and thus could offer a solution to the main difficulties stressed by the skeptics.

The problem with this — and this has been noted by The Physics arXiv Blog and Jennifer Ouellette in recent days — is that PAMELA could come up with only 28 antiprotons over the course of 850 days of data acquisition. There is no question that Bickford is right in seeing how antimatter can be produced locally. In fact, the paper on the PAMELA work says this: “The ?ux exceeds the galactic CR antiproton ?ux by three orders of magnitude at the current solar minimum, thereby constituting the most abundant antiproton source near the Earth.” But does the process produce enough antimatter to make local harvesting a serious possibility?

We need to learn more, obviously, and it’s worth noting, as Keane and Zhang do in their paper, that the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer was installed on the International Space Station in mid-2011, giving us a much enhanced ability to detect and measure antiparticles in Earth orbit. Antimatter harvesting within the Solar System appears to be a workable concept, but if we’re going to need to go to the gas giants to make it happen, we’re obviously pushing back the time frame on collecting significant quantities that could be used in future propulsion systems.

More on this tomorrow, when we’ll look further at Keane and Zhang’s ideas on antimatter engines and what could make them possible. Their paper is “Beamed Core Antimatter Propulsion: Engine Design and Optimization,” submitted to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (preprint). The PAMELA work is Adriani et al., “The discovery of geomagnetically trapped cosmic ray antiprotons,” Astrophysical Journal Letters Vol. 37, No. 2, L29 (abstract / preprint). For a cluster of Bickford references, see Antimatter Source Near the Earth, published here last August.