If Breakthrough Starshot is tackling the question of velocities at a substantial percentage of lightspeed, what do we do about the payload question? A chip-sized spacecraft is challenging in terms of instrumentation and communications, not to mention power. Enter Jeff Greason’s Q-Drive, with an entirely different take on high velocity missions within the Solar System and beyond it. Drawing its energies from the medium to deploy an inert propellant, the Q-Drive ups the payload enormously. But can it be engineered? Alex Tolley has been doing a deep dive on the concept and talking to Dr. Greason about the possibilities, out of which today’s essay has emerged. A Centauri Dreams regular, Alex has a history of innovative propulsion work, and with Brian McConnell is co-author of A Design for a Reusable Water-Based Spacecraft Known as the Spacecoach (Springer, 2016),
by Alex Tolley
Technical University of Munich for Project Icarus. Credit: Adrian Mann.
The interstellar probe coasted at 4% c after her fusion drive first stage was spent. It massed 50,000 kg, mostly propellant water ice stored as a conical shield ahead of the probe that did double duty as a particle shield. The probe extended a spine, several hundred kilometers in length behind the shield. Then the plasma magnet sails at each end started to cycle, using just the power from a small nuclear generator. The magsails captured and extracted power from the ISM streaming by. This powered the ionization and ejection of the propellant. Ejected at the streaming velocity of the ISM, the probe steadily increased in velocity, eventually reaching 20% c after exhausting 48,000 kg of propellant. The probe, targeted at Proxima Centauri, would reach its destination in less than 20 years. It wouldn’t be the first to reach that system, the Breakthrough microsails had done that decades earlier, but this probe was the first with the scientific payload to make a real survey of the system and collect data from its habitable world.
(sound of a needle skidding across a vinyl record). Wait, what? How can a ship accelerate to 20% c without expending massive amounts of power from an onboard power plant, or an intense external power beam from the solar system?
In a previous article, I explained the plasma magnet drive, a magsail technology that did not require a large physical sail structure, but rather a compact electromechanical engine whose magnetic sail size was dependent on the power and the surrounding medium’s plasma density.
Like other magsail and electric sail designs, the plasma magnet could only run before the solar wind, making only outward bound trips and a velocity limited by the wind speed. This inherently limited the missions that a magsail could perform compared to a photon sail. Where it excelled was the thrust was not dependent on the distance from the sun that severely limits solar sail thrust, and therefore this made the plasma magnet sail particularly suited to missions to the outer planets and beyond.
Jeff Greason has since considered how the plasma magnet could be decelerated to allow the spacecraft to orbit a target in the outer system. Following the classic formulations of Fritz Zwicky, Greason considered whether the spacecraft could use onboard mass but external energy to achieve this goal. This external energy was to be extracted from the external medium, not solar or beamed energy, allowing it to operate anywhere where there was a medium moving relative to the vehicle.
The approach to achieve this was to use the momentum and energy of a plasma stream flowing past the ship and using that energy to transfer momentum to an onboard propellant to drive the ship. That plasma stream would be the solar wind inside the solar system (or another star system), and an ionized interstellar medium once beyond the heliosphere.
Counterintuitively, such a propulsion system can work in principle. By ejecting the reaction mass, the ship’s kinetic energy energy is maintained by a smaller mass, and therefore increases its velocity. There is no change in the ship’s kinetic energy, just an adjustment of the ship’s mass and velocity to keep the energy constant.
Box 1 shows that net momentum (and force) can be attained when the energy of the drag medium and propellant thrust are equal. However this simple momentum exchange would not be feasible as a drive as the ejection mass would have to be greater than the intercepted medium resulting in very high mass ratios. In contrast, the Q-Drive, achieves a net thrust with a propellant mass flow far less than the medium passing by the craft, resulting in a low mass ratio yet high performance in terms of velocity increase.
Figure 1 shows the principle of the Q-Drive using a simple terrestrial vehicle analogy. Wind blowing through a turbine generates energy that is then used to eject onboard propellant. If the energy extracted from the wind is used to eject the propellant, in principle the onboard propellant mass flow can be lower than the mass of air passing through the turbine. The propellant’s exhaust velocity is matched to that of the wind, and under these conditions, the thrust can be greater than the drag, allowing the vehicle to move forward into the wind.
Box 2 below shows the basic equations for the Q-Drive.
Let me draw your attention to equations 1 & 2, the drag and thrust forces. The drag force is dependent on the velocity of the wind or the ship moving through the wind which affects the mass flow of the medium. However, it is the change in velocity of the medium as it passes through the energy harvesting mechanism rather than the wind velocity itself that completes this equation. Compare that to the thrust from the propellant where the mass flow is dependent on the square of the exhaust velocity. When the velocity of the ship and the exhaust are equal, the ratio of the mass flows is dependent on the ratio of the change in velocity (delta V) of the medium and the exhaust velocity. The lower the delta V of the medium as the energy is extracted from it, the lower the mass flow of the propellant. As long as the delta V of the medium is greater than zero, as the delta V approaches zero, the mass of the stream of medium is greater than the mass flow of the propellant. Conversely, as the delta V approaches the velocity of the medium, i.e. slowing it to a dead stop relative to the ship, the closer the medium and exhaust mass flows become.
Equations 3 and 7 are for the power delivered by the medium and the propellant thrust. As the power needed for generating the thrust cannot be higher than than delivered by the medium, at 100% conversion the power of each must be equal. As can be seen, the power generated by the energy harvesting is the drag force multiplied by the speed of the medium. However, the power to generate the thrust is ½ the force of the thrust multiplied by the exhaust velocity, which is the same as the velocity of the medium. Therefore the thrust is twice that of the drag force and therefore a net thrust equal to the drag force is achieved [equation 9]. [Because the sail area must be very large to capture the thin solar wind and the even more rarified ISM, the drag force on the ship itself can be discounted.]
Because the power delivered from the external medium increases as the ship increases in velocity, so does the delivered power, which in turn is used to increase the exhaust velocity to match. This is very different from our normal expectations of powering vehicles. Because of this, the Q-Drive can continue to accelerate a ship for as long as it can continue to exhaust propellant.
Figure 2 shows the final velocity versus the ship’s mass ratio performance of the Q-Drive compared to a rocket with a fixed exhaust velocity, and the rocket equation using a variable exhaust but with the thrust reduced by 50% to match the Q-drive net thrust equaling 50% of the propellant thrust. With a mass ratio below 10, a rocket with an exhaust equal to the absolute wind velocity would marginally outperform the Q-drive, although it would need its own power source to run, such as a solar array or nuclear reactor. Beyond that, the Q-drive rapidly outperforms the rocket. This is primarily because as the vehicle accelerates, the increased power harvested from the wind is used to commensurately increase the exhaust velocity. If a rocket could do this, for example like the VASIMR drive, the performance curve is the same. However, the Q-drive does not need a huge power supply to work, and therefore offers a potential for very high velocity without needing a matching power supply.
Equation A16  and Box 3 equation 1 show that the Q-Drive has a velocity multiplier that is the square root of the mass ratio. This is highly favorable compared to the rocket equation. The equations 2 and 3 in Box 3 show that the required propellant and hence mass ratio is reduced the less the medium velocity is reduced to extract power. However, reducing the delta V of the medium also reduced the acceleration of the craft. This implies that the design of the ship will be dependent on mission requirements rather than some fixed optimization.
Box 4 provides some illustrative values for the size of the mag sails in the solar system for the Q-Drive and the expected performance for a 1 tonne craft. While the magnetic sail radii are large, they are achievable and allow for relatively high acceleration. As explained in , the plasma magnet sails increase in size as the medium density decreases, maintaining the forces on the sail. Once in interstellar space, the ISM is yet more rarefied and the sails have to commensurately expand.
How might the plasma medium’s energy be harvested?
The wind turbine shown in figure 1 is replaced by an arrangement of the plasma magnet sails. To harvest the energy of the medium, it is useful to conceptualize the plasma magnet sail as a parachute that slows the wind to run a generator. At the end of this power stroke, the parachute is collapsed and rewound to the starting point to start the next power cycle. This is illustrated in figure 3. A ship would have 2 plasma magnet sails that cycle their magnetic fields at each end of a long spine that is aligned with the wind direction to mimic this mechanism. The harvested energy is then used to eject propellant so that the propellant exhaust velocity is optimally the same as the medium wind speed. By balancing the captured power with that needed to eject propellant, the ship needs no dedicated onboard power beyond that for maintenance of other systems, for example, powering the magnetic sails.
Within the solar system, the Q-Drive could therefore push a ship towards the sun into the solar wind, as well as away from the sun with the solar wind at its back. Ejecting propellant ahead of the ship on an outward bound journey would allow the ship to decelerate. Ejecting the propellant ahead of the ship as it faced the solar wind would allow the ship to fall towards the sun. In both cases, the maximum velocity is about the 400 km/s of the peak density velocity of the solar wind.
Can the drive achieve velocities greater than the solar wind?
With pure drag sails, whether photon or magnetic, the maximum velocity is the same as the medium pushing on the sail. For a magnetic sail, this is the bulk velocity of the solar wind, about 400 km/s at the sun’s equator, and 700 km/s at the sun’s poles.
Unlike drag sails, the Q-Drive can achieve velocities greater than the medium, e.g. the solar wind. As long as the wind is flowing into the bow of the ship, the ship can accelerate indefinitely until the propellant is exhausted. The limitation is that this can only happen while the ship is facing into the wind (or the wind vector has a forward facing component). In the solar system, this requires that there is sufficient distance to allow the ship to accelerate until its velocity is higher than the solar wind before it flies past the sun. Once past perihelion, the ship is now running into the solar wind from behind, and can therefore keep accelerating.
What performance might be achievable?
To indicate the possible performance of the Q-drive in the solar system, 2 missions are explored, both requiring powered flight into the solar wind.
Two Solar System Missions
1. Mercury Rendezvous
To reach Mercury quickly requires the probe to reduce its orbital speed around the sun to drop down to Mercury’s orbit and then reduce velocity further to allow orbital insertion. The Q-Drive ship points its bow towards the sun, and ejects propellant off-axis. This quickly pushed the probe into a fast trajectory towards the sun. Further propellant ejection is required to prevent the probe from a fast return trajectory and to remain in Mercury’s sun orbital path. From there a mix of propellant ejection and simple drag alone can be used to place the probe in orbit around Mercury. Flight time is of the order of 55 days. Figure 4 illustrates the maneuver.
2. Sundiver with Triton Flyby
The recent Centauri Dreams post on a proposed flyby mission to Triton indicated a flight time of 12 years using gravity assists from Earth, Venus, and Jupiter.. The Q-Drive could reduce most of that flight time using a sundiver approach. Figure 5 shows the possible flight path. The Q-Drive powers towards the sun against the solar wind. It must have a high enough acceleration to ensure that at perihelion it is now traveling faster than the solar wind. This allows it to now continue on a hyperbolic trajectory continually accelerating until its propellant is exhausted.
This sundiver maneuver allows the Q-Drive craft to fly downwind faster than the wind.
For a ship outward bound beyond the heliosphere, the ISM medium is experienced as a wind coming from the bow, While extremely tenuous, there is enough medium to extract the energy for continued acceleration as long as the ship has ejectable mass.
Up to this point, I have been careful to state this works IN PRINCIPLE. In practice there are some very severe engineering challenges. The first is to be able to extract energy from the drag of the plasma winds with sufficient efficiency to generate the needed power for propellant ejection. The second is to be able to eject propellant with a velocity that matches the speed of the vehicle, IOW, the exhaust velocity must match the vehicle’s velocity, unlike the constant exhaust velocity of a rocket. If the engines to eject propellant can only eject mass at a constant velocity, the delta V of the drive would look more like a conventional rocket, with a natural logarithm function of the mass flow. The ship would still be able to extract energy from the medium, but the mass ratio would have to be very much higher. The chart in Figure 2 shows the difference between a fixed velocity exhaust and the Q-Drive with variable velocity.
The engineering issues to turn the Q-Drive into hardware are formidable. To extract the energy of the plasma medium whether solar wind or ISM, with high efficiency, is non-trivial. Greason’s idea is to have 2 plasma magnet drag sails at each end of the probe’s spine that cycle in power to extract the energy. The model is rather like a parachute that is open to create drag to push on the parachute to run a generator, then collapse the parachute to release the trapped medium and restart it at the bow (see figure 3). Whether this is sufficient to create the needed energy extraction efficiency will need to be worked out. If the efficiencies are like those of a vertical axis wind turbine that works like drag engines, the efficiencies will be far too low. The efficiency would need to be higher than that of horizontal axis wind turbines to reduce the mass penalties for the propellant. It can be readily seen that if the efficiencies combine to be lower than 50%, then the Q-Drive effectively drops back into the regime illustrated in Box 1, that is that the mass of propellant must become larger than the medium and ejected more slowly. This hugely raises the mass ratio of the craft and in turn reduces its performance.
The second issue is how to eject the propellant to match the velocity of the medium streaming over the probe. Current electric engines have exhaust velocities in the 10s of km/s. Theoretical electric engines might manage the solar wind velocity. Efficiencies of ion drives are in the 50% range at present. To reach a fraction of light speed for the interstellar mission is orders of difficulty harder. Greason suggests something like a magnetic field particle accelerator that operates the length of the ship’s spine. Existing particle accelerators have low efficiencies, so this may present another very significant engineering challenge. If the exhaust velocity cannot be matched to the speed of the ship through the medium, the performance looks much more like a rocket, with velocity increases that depend on the natural logarithm of the mass ratio, rather than the square root. For the interstellar mission, increasing the velocity from 4% to 20% light speed would require a mass ratio of not just 25, but rather closer to 150.
Figure 6 shows my attempt to illustrate a conceptual Q-Drive powered spacecraft for interstellar flight. The propellant is at the front to act as a particle shield in the ISM. There is a science platform and communication module behind this propellant shield. Behind stretches a many kilometers long spine that has a plasma magnet at either end to harvest the energy in the ISM and to accelerate the propellant. Waste heat is handled by the radiator along this spine.
In summary, the Q-Drive offers an interesting path to high velocity missions both intra-system and interstellar, with much larger payloads than the Breakthrough Starshot missions, but with anticipated engineering challenges comparable with other exotic drives such as antimatter engines. The elegance of the Q-Drive is the capability of drawing the propulsion energy from the medium, so that the propellant can be common inert material such as water or hydrogen.
The conversion of the medium’s momentum to net thrust is more efficient than a rocket with constant exhaust velocity using onboard power allowing far higher velocities with equivalent mass ratios. The two example missions show the substantial improvements in mission time for both and inner system rendezvous and an outer system flyby. The Q-Drive also offers the intriguing possibility of interstellar missions with reasonable scientific and communication payloads that are not heroic feats of miniaturization.
1. Greason J. “A Reaction Drive Powered by External Dynamic Pressure” (2019) JBIS v72 pp146–152.
2. Greason J. ibid. equation A4 p151.
3. Greason J. “A Reaction Drive Powered by External Dynamic Pressure” (2019) TVIW video https://youtu.be/86z42y7DEAk
4. Tolley A. “The Plasma Magnet Drive: A Simple, Cheap Drive for the Solar System and Beyond“ (2017) https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2017/12/29/the-plasma-magnet-drive-a-simple-cheap-drive-for-the-solar-system-and-beyond/
5. Zwicky F. The Fundamentals of Power (1946). Manuscript for the International Congress of Applied Mechanics in Paris, September 22-29, 1946.