Antimatter Could Revolutionize Spacecraft Propulsion

March 4, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Antimatter rocket
Photo credit: NASA/MSFC

It could get a probe to our outer solar system in less than a year.

Last week, we heard that it might be possible to get to Mars in just three days using laser propulsion. Now, Fermilab physicist Gerald Jackson says we could get to our outer solar system in a year or less using antimatter propulsion. Even better, he claims that it will be possible within the next two to three decades.

Before we go too far, let’s get a definition out of the way: What exactly is antimatter? In simple terms, it’s like regular matter, but the charges are reversed. “That means an antimatter electron has the opposite electric charge of a normal matter electron and also the ability to annihilate if it ‘finds’ its own partner particle, ” James Annis, a physicist at Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics explained, according to Forbes.

That annihilation is what provides energy, and massive amounts of it — a gram of antimatter could create an explosion the size of a nuclear bomb. In fact, a tiny amount of antimatter could power a spacecraft without weighing much at all. This is great news because, typically, fuel and its weight cause a bit of a vicious circle: The more fuel you have, the more fuel you need to lift the weight of the extra fuel.

“My Hbar partner, physicist Steven Howe, and I came up with a very light propulsion system whose mass was comparative to the payload — an antimatter sail,” said Jackson, President of Hbar Technologies, to Forbes. They will soon begin a kickstarter campaign with the hopes of raising $200,000 in order to launch the next phase of their research.

SEE ALSO: LHC Confirms Fundamental Symmetry of Matter and Antimatter

The main difficulty with using antimatter is storage. It has to be kept away from matter, which is easier said than done. Furthermore, the production and storage is extremely expensive. “Making 1 gram of antimatter would require approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and cost over a million billion dollars,” according to Symmetry Magazine.

This explains why humans have only ever created exceptionally tiny amounts. Between Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator, CERN, and DESY, the total adds up to a measly 18 nanograms. In order to travel to Alpha Centauri, it would take 17 grams of antihydrogen.

“If all the antimatter ever made by humans were annihilated at once, the energy produced wouldn’t even be enough to boil a cup of tea,” states Symmetry Magazine. There’s still a long way to go.

Jackson and Howe’s design has four parts: “a depleted uranium-coated carbon sail; a solid antihydrogen storage unit; an antiproton-driven electrical power supply, and a small payload instrument package at the back of the spacecraft,” according to Forbes.

In theory, when an antihydrogen proton hits the depleted uranium-coated carbon sail, the latter fissions, creating two byproducts that have equal momentum. One of them ends up in space as exhaust, whereas the other heads towards the sail where it is slowed down and absorbed, propelling the spacecraft forward.

Will they be able to take it from theory to reality? Who’s to say? But one thing’s for sure, it won’t be easy or cheap.

You might also like: Do You Live on a Deposit of Antimatter? 

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