The Bussard ramjet is an idea whose attractions do not fade, especially given stunning science fiction treatments like Poul Anderson’s novel Tau Zero. Not long ago I heard from Peter Schattschneider, a physicist and writer who has been exploring the Bussard concept in a soon to be published novel. In the article below, Dr. Schattschneider explains the complications involved in designing a realistic ramjet for his novel, with an interesting nod to a follow-up piece I’ll publish as soon as it is available on the work of John Ford Fishback, whose ideas on magnetic field configurations we have discussed in these pages before.
The author is professor emeritus in solid state physics at Technische Universität Wien, but he has also worked for a private engineering company as well as the French CNRS, and has been director of the Vienna University Service Center for Electron Microscopy. With more than 300 research articles in peer-reviewed journals and several monographs on electron-matter interaction, Dr. Schattschneider’s current research focuses on electron vortex beams, which are exotic probes for solid state spectroscopy. He tells me that his interest in physics emerged from an early fascination with science fiction, leading to the publication of several SF novels in German and many short stories in SF anthologies, some of them translated into English and French. As we see below, so-called ‘hard’ science fiction, scrupulously faithful to physics, demands attention to detail while pushing into fruitful speculation about future discovery.
by Peter Schattschneider
When the news about the BLC1 signal from Proxima Centauri came in, I was just finishing a scientific novel about an expedition to our neighbour star. Good news, I thought – the hype would spur interest in space travel. Disappointment set in immediately: Should the signal turn out to be real, this kind of science fiction would land in the dustbin.
Image: Peter Schattschneider. Credit & copyright: Klaus Ranger Fotografie.
The space ship in the novel is a Bussard ramjet. Collecting interstellar hydrogen with some kind of electrostatic or magnetic funnel that would operate like a giant vacuum cleaner is a great idea promoted by Robert W. Bussard in 1960 . Interstellar protons (and some other stuff) enter the funnel at the ship‘s speed without further ado. Fusion to helium will not pose a problem in a century or so (ITER is almost working), conversion of the energy gain into thrust would work as in existing thrusters, and there you go!
Some order-of-magnitude calculations show that it isn‘t as simple as that. But more on that later. Let us first look at the more mundane problems occuring on a journey to our neighbour. The values given below were taken from my upcoming The EXODUS Incident , calculated for a ship mass of 1500 tons, an efficiency of 85% of the fusion energy going into thrust, an interstellar medium of density 1 hydrogen atom/cm3, completely ionized by means of electron strippers.
On the Way
Like existing ramjets the Bussard ramjet is an assisted take-off engine. In order to harvest fuel it needs a take-off speed, here 42 km/s, the escape velocity from the solar system. The faster a Bussard ramjet goes, the higher is the thrust, which means that one cannot assume a constant acceleration but must solve the dynamic rocket equation. The following table shows acceleration, speed and duration of the journey for different scoop radii.
At the midway point, the thrust is inverted to slow the ship down for arrival. To achieve an acceleration of the order of 1 g (as for instance in Poul Anderson’s celebrated novel Tau Zero ), the fusion drive must produce a thrust of 18 million Newton, about half the thrust of the Saturn-V. That doesn’t seem tremendous, but a short calculation reveals that one needs a scoop radius of about 3500 km to harvest enough fuel because the density of the interstellar medium is so low. Realizing magnetic or electric fields of this dimension is hardly imaginable, even for an advanced technology.
A perhaps more realistic funnel entrance of 200 km results in a time of flight of almost 500 years. Such a scenario would call for a generation starship. I thought that an acceleration of 0.1 g was perhaps a good compromise, avoiding both technical and social fantasizing. It stipulates a scoop radius of 1000 km, still enormous, but let us play the “what-if“ game: The journey would last 17.3 years, quite reasonable with future cryo-hibernation. The acceleration increases slowly, reaching a maximum of 0.1 g after 4 years. Interestingly, after that the acceleration decreases, although the speed and therefore the proton influx increases. This is because the relativistic mass of the ship increases with speed.
It has been pointed out by several authors that the “standard“ operation of a fusion reactor, burning Deuterium 2D into Helium 3He cannot work because the amount of 2D in interstellar space is too low. The proton-proton burning that would render p+p → 2D for the 2D → 3He reaction is 24 orders of magnitude (!) slower.
The interstellar ramjet seemed impossible until in 1975 Daniel Whitmire  proposed the Bethe-Weizsäcker or CNO cycle that operates in hot stars. Here, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen serve as catalysts. The reaction is fast enough for thrust production. The drawback is that it needs a very high core temperature of the plasma of several hundred million Kelvin. Reaction kinetics, cross sections and other gadgets stipulate a plasma volume of at least 6000 m3 which makes a spherical chamber of 11 m radius (for design aficionados a torus or – who knows? – a linear chamber of the same order of magnitude).
At this point, it should be noted that the results shown above were obtained without taking account of many limiting conditions (radiation losses, efficiency of the fusion process, drag, etc.) The numerical values are at best accurate to the first decimal. They should be understood as optimistic estimates, and not as input for the engineer.
Radioactive high-energy by-products of the fusion process are blocked by a massive wall between the engine and the habitable section, made up of heavy elements. This is not the biggest problem because we already handle it in the experimental ITER design. The main problem is waste heat. The reactor produces 0.3 million GW. Assuming an efficiency of 85% going into thrust, the waste energy is still 47,000 GW in the form of neutrinos, high energy particles and thermal radiation. The habitable section should be at a considerable distance from the engine in order not to roast the crew. An optimistic estimate renders a distance of about 800 m, with several stacks of cooling fins in between. The surface temperature of the sternside hull would be at a comfortable 20-60 degrees Celsius. Without the shields, the hull would receive waste heat at a rate of 6 GW/m2, 5 million times more than the solar constant on earth.
An important aspect of the Bussard ramjet design is shielding from cosmic rays. At the maximum speed of 60% of light speed, interstellar hydrogen hits the bow with a kinetic energy of 200 MeV, dangerous for the crew. A.C. Clarke has proposed a protecting ice sheet at the bow of a starship in his novel The Songs of Distant Earth . A similar solution is also known from modern proton cancer therapy. The penetration depth of such protons in tissue (or water, for that matter) is 26 cm. So it suffices to put a 26 cm thick water tank at the bow.
It is known that long periods of zero gravity are disastrous to the human body. It is therefore advised to have the ship rotate in order to create artificial gravity. In such an environment there are unusual phenomena, e.g. a different barometric height equation, or atmospheric turbulence caused by the Coriolis forces. Throwing an object in a rotating space ship has surprising consequences, exemplified in Fig. 1. Funny speculations about exquisite sporting activities are allowed.
Fig. 1: Freely falling objects in a rotating cylinder, thrown in different directions with the same starting speed. In this example, drawn from my novel, the cylinder has a radius of 45 m, rotating such that the artificial gravity on the inner hull is 0.3 g. The object is thrown with 40 km/h in different directions. Seen by an observer at rest, the cylinder rotates counterclockwise.
The central question for scooping hydrogen is this: Which electric or magnetic field configuration allows us to collect a sufficient amount of interstellar hydrogen? There are solutions for manipulating charged particles: colliders use magnetic quadrupoles to keep the beam on track. The symmetry of the problem stipulates a cylindrical field configuration, such as ring coils or round electrostatic or magnetic lenses which are routinely used in electron microscopy. Such lenses are annular ferromagnetic yokes with a round bore hole of the order of a millimeter. They focus an incoming electron beam from a diameter of some microns to a nanometer spot.
Scaling the numbers up, one could dream of collecting incoming protons over tens of kilometers into a spot of less than 10 meters, good enough as input to a fusion chamber. This task is a formidable technological challenge. Anyway, it is prohibitive by the mere question of mass. Apart from that, one is still far away from the needed scoop radius of 1000 km.
The next best idea relates to the earth’s magnetic dipole field. It is known that charged particles follow the field lines over long distances, for instance causing aurora phenomena close to earth’s magnetic poles. So it seems that a simple ring coil producing a magnetic dipole is a promising device. Let’s have a closer look at the physics. In a magnetic field, charged particles obey the Lorentz force. Calculating the paths of the interstellar protons is then a simple matter of plugging the field into the force equation. The result for a dipole field is shown in Fig. 2.
Fig. 2: Some trajectories of protons starting at z=2R in the magnetic field of a ring coil of radius R that sits at the origin. Magnetic field lines (light blue) converge towards the loop hole. Only a small part of the protons would pass through the ring (red lines), spiralling down according to cyclotron gyration. The rest is deflected (black lines).
An important fact is seen here: the scoop radius is smaller than the coil radius. It turns out that it diminishes further when the starting point of the protons is set at higher z values. This starting point is defined where the coil field is as low as the galactic magnetic field (~1 nT). Taking a maximum field of a few Tesla at the origin and the 1/(z/R)3 decay of the dipole field, where R is the coil radius (10 m in the example), the charged particles begin to sense the scooping field at a distance of 10 km. The scoop radius at this distance is a ridiculously small – 2 cm. All particles outside this radius are deflected, producing drag.
That said, loop coils are hopelessly inefficient for hydrogen scooping, but they are ideal braking devices for future deep space probes, and interestingly they may also serve as protection shields against cosmic radiation. On Proxima b, strong flares of the star create particle showers, largely protons of 10 to 50 MeV energy. A loop coil protects the crew as shown in Fig. 3.
Fig.3: Blue: Magnetic field lines from a horizontal superconducting current loop of radius R=30 cm. Red lines are radial trajectories of stellar flare protons of 10 MeV energy approaching from top. The loop and the mechanical protection plate (a 3 cm thick water reservoir colored in blue) are at z=0. It absorbs the few central impinging particles. The fast cyclotron motion of the protons creates a plasma aureole above the protective plate, drawn as a blue-green ring right above the coil. The field at the coil center is 6 Tesla, and 20 milliTesla at ground level.
After all this paraphernalia the central question remains: Can a sufficient amount of hydrogen be harvested? From the above it seems that magnetic dipole fields, or even a superposition of several dipole fields, cannot do the job. Surprisingly, this is not quite true. For it turns out that an arcane article from 1969 by a certain John Ford Fishback  gives us hope, but this is another story and will be narrated at a later time.
1. Robert W. Bussard: Galactic Matter and Interstellar Flight. Astronautica Acta 6 (1960), 1-14.
2. P. Schattschneider: The EXODUS Incident – A Scientific Novel. Springer Nature, Science and Fiction Series. May 2021, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-70019-5.
3. Poul Anderson: Tau Zero (1970).
4. Daniel P. Whitmire: Relativistic Spaceflight and the Catalytic Nuclear Ramjet. Acta Astronautica 2 (1975), 497-509.
5. Arthur C. Clarke: Songs of distant Earth (1986).
6. John F. Fishback: Relativistic Interstellar Space Flight. Astronautica Acta 15 (1969), 25-35.