Jim Benford’s article on particle beam propulsion, published here last Friday and discussed in the days since, draws from the paper he will soon be submitting to one of the journals. I like the process: By running through the ideas here, we can see how they play before this scientifically literate audience, with responses that Jim can use in tweaking the final draft of the paper. Particle beam propulsion raises many issues, not surprising given the disagreements among the few papers that have tackled the subject. Are there ways of keeping the beam spread low that we haven’t thought of yet? Does a particle beam require shielding for the payload? Does interplanetary particle beam work require a fully built infrastructure in the Solar System? We have much to consider as the analysis of this interesting propulsion concept continues. Dr. Benford is President of Microwave Sciences in Lafayette, California, which deals with high power microwave systems from conceptual designs to hardware.

by James Benford


Let me first say that I appreciate the many comments on my piece on neutral particle beam propulsion. With so many comments I can react in only a limited sense. I appreciate in particular the many comments and suggestions by Alex Tolley, swage, Peter Popov, Dana Andrews, Michael, Greg (of course), Project Studio and David Lewis.

Galacsi: The launch system as envisioned by Dana Andrews and Alan Mole would be affixed to an asteroid that would provide sufficient mass to prevent the reaction from the launch of the beam from altering the orbit of the Beamer and changing the direction of the beam itself. No quantitative valuation of this has been provided to date.

James Messick says we can have thrusters to maintain the Beamer in place, but the thrusters must have the same thrust as the Beamer in order to prevent some serious motion.

Rangel is entirely right; one has to start at lower power nearer objectives, as we have to do for all interstellar concepts.

Alex Tolley is quite correct that what is envisioned here is a series of beam generators at each end of the journey for interplanetary missions, which means a big and mature Solar System economy. That’s why I placed this in future centuries. And I agree with him that in the short term beamed electromagnetic or electric sails are going to be much more economic because they don’t require deceleration at the destination.

Adam: the Beamer requirement if the magsail expands as the pressure falls off probably doesn’t scale well, as B falls off very quickly- I don’t think the scaling justifies any optimism.

There are certainly a lot of questions about the solar wind’s embedded magnetic field. All these requirements would benefit from a higher magnetic field from the magsail, which unfortunately also increases the mass of the probe.

Alex Tolley correctly points out that deflecting high-energy particles produces synchrotron radiation, which will require some shielding of the payload. Shielded payloads are available now, due to DOD requirements. [Jim adds in an email: “Shielding is needed for the payload while the beam is on. Keep it, don’t discard, as there are cosmic rays to shield against on all flights].

Swage is correct in saying that we need to start small, meaning interplanetary, before we think large. Indeed lasers are far less efficient than the neutral beam concept. That’s because deflecting material particles is a much higher efficiency process than deflecting mere photons. Swage is completely correct about the economics of using beam propulsion.

And using multiple smaller beams doesn’t reduce divergence. ‘Would self focusing beams be an option?’ No. Charged beams don’t self-focus in a vacuum, they need a medium for that and it isn’t easy to make happen. Charged particle beams can be focused using their self-generated magnetic field only when some neutralization of charges is provided. There is also a large set of instabilities that can occur in such regimes. That’s a basic reason why charged particle beams are not being seriously considered as weapons and neutral beams are the only option.


Image: The divergence problem. A charged-particle beam will tend naturally to spread apart, due to the mutually repulsive forces between the like-charged particles constituting the beam. The electric current created by the moving charges will generate a surrounding magnetic field, which will tend to bind the beam together. However, unless there is some neutralization of the charge, the mutually repulsive force will always be the stronger force and the beam will blow itself apart. Even when the beam is neutralized, the methods used to neutralize it can still lead to unavoidable beam divergence over the distances needed for interstellar work. Image credit: Richard Roberds/Air University Review.

Peter Popov asked whether you could focus sunlight directly. You can’t focus sunlight to a smaller angular size than it fills in your sky. (That is because the sun is an incoherent source. The focusability of sunlight is limited by its incoherence, meaning that the radiation from the sun comes from a vast number of radiating elements which are not related to one another in a coherent way.) Therefore the ability to focus sunlight is limited, and is in no way related to the focusing of coherent light. However, you can increase the focusing aperture, collecting more light, making the power density higher, but the spot size doesn’t grow.

Dana Andrews’ comment that the neutral “atoms with any transverse velocity are eliminated before they are accelerated” means that you throw away all but one part in a million of the initial beam: Suppose this device, which separates particles out, reduces the divergence by 3 orders of magnitude. That implies, for a beam uniform in angular distribution, a reduction in Intensity of 1 million (because the solid angle scales with the square of the opening angle). Such a vast inefficiency is unaffordable.

For Dana & Alex Tolley, re-ionizing the beam as it reaches the magsail will not be difficult. The reason is that they are in relativistically separated frames so that the magnetic field of the magsail will appear as an electric field in the frame of the atoms, a field sufficient to ionize the atom. No on-board ionizer is required.

Michael suggests going to ultrarelativistic beams, but that means much more synchrotron radiation when the beam deflects from the magsail. Consequently, very much higher fields are necessary for deflection. That would mean either much more current or much larger diameter in the magsail. My instinct is that that does not scale well. And the divergence I described is not changed by going ultrarelativistic, as it just depends on ratios of mass and energies of electron to ion. Also, using heavier atoms helps but, with a square root dependence, not enough.

ProjectStudio also advocates that an ultrarelativistic neutral beam would have a reduced divergence, for which see above. I note again the enormous amount of radiation they produce whenever they are either deflected by the magnetic field or collide with matter. In fact, going in the Andrews/Mole concept from 0.2 c to 0.9c means the synchrotron radiation increases by a factor of 2300! That bathes the payload, as the ions swing round.

Alex Jolie is also correct in saying that we need to look into the development of beam power infrastructure. Once it’s in place economics drives down the price of transportation; the same was true for the railroads.

David Lewis seems to get the concept entirely.