Take a look at the image below. It’s a jet coming off the quasar 3C273. I call your attention to the length of this jet, some 100,000 light years, which is roughly the distance across the Milky Way. Jeff Greason pointed out at the Montreal symposium of the Interstellar Research Group that images like this suggest it may be possible for humans to produce ‘pinched’ relativistic electron jets over the much smaller distances needed to propel a spacecraft out of the Solar System. This is an intriguing image if you’re interested in high-energy beams pushing payloads to nearby stars.
Greason is a self-described ‘serial entrepreneur,’ the holder of some 29 patents and chief technologist of Electric Sky, which is all about beaming energy to craft much closer to home. But he moonlights as chairman of the Tau Zero Foundation and is a well known figure in interstellar studies. Placing beaming into context is a useful exercise, as it suggests alternative ways to generate and use a beam. In all of these, we want to carry little or no fuel aboard the craft, drawing our propulsion from the home system.
Image: Composite false-color image of the quasar jet 3C273, with emission from radio waves to X-rays extending over more than 100,000 light years. The black hole itself is to the left of the image. Colors indicate the wavelength region where energetic particles give off most of their energy: yellow contours show the radio emission, with denser contours for brighter emission (data from VLA); blue is for X-rays (Chandra); green for optical light (Hubble); and red is for infrared emission (Spitzer). Credit: Y. Uchiyama, M. Urry, H.-J. Röser, R. Perley, S. Jester.
Laser beaming to a starship comes first to mind, going back as it does to the days of Robert Forward and György Marx, who explored options in the infancy of the technology. Later work on laser ad well as microwave beaming has included such luminaries as Geoffrey Landis, Gregory Matloff and James Benford, not to mention today’s intense laser effort via Breakthrough Starshot and the ongoing work at UC-Santa Barbara under Philip Lubin. A separate track has followed beamed options using elementary particles or, indeed, larger particles; the name Clifford Singer comes first to mind here, though Landis has done key work. A major problem: Beam power is inversely proportional to effective range. If we’re after faster, bigger ships, we need to find a way to extend the range of whatever kind of beam we’re sending.
We’ve lost some of the scientists who have dug deeply into these matters. Dana Andrews died last January, and Jordin Kare left us some six years ago (I will have more to say about Dr. Andrews in a future post). Kare developed ‘sailbeam,’ which was a string of micro-sails sent as fuel fodder to a larger starship. Pushing neutral particles to the long ranges we need faces problems of beam divergence, and charged particle beams are even more tricky, because like charges cause the beam to diverge.
Greason outlined another possibility at Montreal, one he described as ‘no more than half of an idea,’ but one he’s hoping to provoke colleagues to explore. This beaming option uses the ‘pinch’ phenomenon, in which charged beams in a low-density plasma can confine themselves over long distances. The mechanism: A beam carrying a current creates a circular axial magnetic field which in turn confines the beam. ‘Pinching’ is a means of self-confinement of the beam that has been studied since the 1930s. A pinch forming a jet explains why solar proton events can strike the Earth despite the 1 AU distance, and why galaxy-spanning jets like that in the image above can form.
Image: Jeff Greason, chief technologist and co-founder of Electric Sky.
We normally hear about a ‘pinch’ in the context of fusion research, but here we’re more interested in the beam’s persistence than its ability to compress and heat a plasma. The beam persists until it loses energy by collisions, which causes the current sustaining it to weaken and lose confinement. Although Greason said that ion beams may prove feasible, he noted that we’re getting into territory where we simply lack data to know what will work. Issues of charge neutralization and return currents from the beam come into play, as do long-range oscillations that can affect the beam. But the idea of applying a magnetic field to a stream of electrons along a specific axis to create the z-pinch is well established. If we can create an electron beam using this method, we can resurrect the idea of using charged particle beams to push our starship.
How to use power beamed in this fashion once it arrives at the target craft is a significant question. Greason spoke of the beam striking a plasma-filled waveguide which can ‘couple to backwards plasma wave modes,’ in effect launching plasma in the opposite direction as reaction mass. This keys to existing work on plasma accelerators (so-called “wakefield” accelerators), which use similar physics. How much of the beamed energy can be returned in this way remains up for investigation.
The consequences of mastering pinched beaming technologies would be immense. If we can increase the range of a beam from 0.1 AU to 1000 AU, we open up the possibility of sending much larger spacecraft, up to 105 larger, at the same power levels. We go from a gram-sized spacecraft as contemplated by Breakthrough Starshot’s laser methods to one of 10 kilograms. In doing this we have also changed the acceleration time from minutes to months. That increased payload size is particularly useful when it allows a braking system aboard for long-term study of the target.
This method demands a space-based platform – these ideas are inapplicable when applied to a ground installation and a beam through the atmosphere. Beaming from a location near the Sun offers obvious access to power and could be made possible through a near-Solar statite; i.e., an installation that ‘hovers’ over the Sun at Parker Solar Probe distances. Greason adds that to add maximum stability to the beam, the statite would have to transmit from a location between the Sun and the target star; i.e, the flow should be with the current of the solar wind as opposed to across the stream.
Image: Can we operate a statite at 0.05 AU from the Sun? This NASA visualization of the Parker Solar Probe highlights the kind of conditions the craft would be operating in.
The operative statite technology is thermionics, where electrons ‘boil’ out of a hot cathode and collect on a cold anode. Greason’s statite winds up with approximately 50 kilowatts per square meter of useful power; factoring in the thickness of the foils used in the installation, he calculates 150 kilowatts per square kilogram. A 1 gigawatt electron beam results. So operating at about 11 solar radii, we can produce the beam we need while also being forced to tackle the issues involved in maintaining a statite in position. One possibility is a plasma magnet sail to make use of the supersonic solar wind, a notion Greason has been exploring for years. See Alex Tolley’s The Plasma Magnet Drive: A Simple, Cheap Drive for the Solar System and Beyond for more.
Greason’s tightly reasoned, no-nonsense approach makes him a hugely appealing speaker. He’s offering a concept that opens out into all kinds of research questions, and spurring interested parties to advance the construct. A symposium of like-minded scientists and engineers like that in Montreal provides the kind of venue to gin up that support. The implication of being able to reach 20 percent of lightspeed with a multi-kilogram spacecraft is driver enough. A craft like that could begin exploration of nearby stars in stellar orbit there, rather than blowing through the destination system within a matter of minutes. What smaller beam installations near Earth could do for interplanetary exploration is left to the imagination of the reader.