Beamed core antimatter propulsion – more efficient, but don’t hold your breath!

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Antimatter propulsion is the Holy Grail of spaceflight.

When matter and antimatter react, the energy produced is several billion times larger than the thermomechanical energy resulting from burning a kilogram of a hydrocarbon fuel. Now a high school student has developed a new magnetic exhaust nozzle that would double the velocity of an antimatter-powered rocket.

Despite the extraordinary difficulty of generating and storing significant amounts of antimatter, the potential it offers as a power source for interplanetary and interstellar voyages is nearly irresistible to spaceflight visionaries. Hearing this call to adventure, Roman Keane, a high school senior at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, and his mentor, Senior Research Fellow Wei-Ming Zhang of Kent State University, decided to optimize an existing model for an antimatter-powered rocket engine.

Matter reacting with antimatter is the ultimate source of energy which might be available to power space travel beyond the Solar System. The energy released by the reaction of a gram each of antimatter and matter is about equal to that of a forty kiloton atomic bomb. As a result, numerous conceptual studies have examined antimatter as a fuel for extrasolar spacecraft. A full design effort is somewhat pointless at this stage, as at present we don’t know how to manufacture, store, or manipulate large quantities of antimatter – the current cost of that gram of antimatter is roughly estimated at about a trillion US dollars.

One element of the system that can be studied with existing technology is the design and operation of a magnetic nozzle for a beamed core antimatter rocket engine. By causing moving charged particles to be directed into a beam, the magnetic nozzle generates propulsive thrust from the annihilating antimatter.

The beamed core antimatter rocket depends on a little-known fact about antimatter – the only particle-antiparticle annihilation that immediately converts 100 percent of the particle mass into energy is the reaction of an electron with an positron. In contrast, when protons and antiprotons react, they produce a variety of charged and uncharged pions, which are elementary particles. More interesting phenomena occur when antiprotons annihilate against a compound nucleus, such as copper or lead. Many of the electrically charged reaction products retain their identity as charged particles long enough that they can be focused into a unidirectional beam by a magnetic nozzle.

Past studies of such magnetic nozzles determined that magnet coils providing a magnetic field well in excess of 100 Tesla in strength were required. Such strong magnetic fields can only be produced in extremely short pulses using today’s technology, so this early solution was not practical. These studies also suggested that the exhaust velocity of a beamed core antimatter engine would top out at about a third of the speed of light, which is rather marginal for interstellar missions.

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via Gizmag – Brian Dodson

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