Lasers, Antimatter, Propulsion?
July 17, 2012 --
The problem with space is that it's big. Really, really big. To get to the nearest planet in our solar system takes months at best. But say if you wanted to travel to the nearest star? This question is currently being considered by a team of scientists and engineers from Icarus Interstellar Inc., one of a group of organizations chosen to spearhead DARPA's 100 Year Star Ship (100YSS) project. The aim of 100YSS is to formulate plans to send humans to in interstellar destination -- such as Proxima Centauri, a little over 4 light-years from Earth -- within the next century. But Richard Obousy, President and Co-Founder of Icarus Interstellar, introduced the Vacuum to Antimatter-Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES) -- an unmanned prototype starship -- to Discovery News readers on Monday as one of the projects Icarus is working on to make our interstellar dreams come true. With the help of the stunning artwork by Adrian Mann, take a look at how this futuristic technology may be able to unlock antimatter from the vacuum of space and use it to propel the ultimate interstellar spaceship.
Antimatter from... WHERE? The main premise of VARIES is that it will generate its own antimatter fuel from space itself. Quantum mechanics tells us that even the vacuum of space isn't empty in the classical sense. It's actually buzzing with activity where particles and antiparticles pop in and out of existence. But should a powerful enough electric field be generated by a hypothetical laser system like the one VARIES would need, argues Obousy, the antiparticles (a.k.a. antimatter) may be harvested before they can annihilate with their particle twin. "While the electric field strength necessary to accomplish this is immense, to say the least, recent experimental advances have raised hope that lasers may soon achieve field intensities on the order of this very critical field intensity," says Obousy.
A Reaction Antimatter-matter reactions are often cited as an ideal form of propulsion for interstellar vehicles -- when particles collide with antiparticles, raw energy is released that could be harnessed. "The reaction occurs spontaneously and so does not require any complex reactor systems or bulky drivers to initiate the reaction," adds Obousy.
Fire Her Up! Of course, the creation of antimatter has only been achieved in vanishingly small amounts in the world's most powerful particle accelerators, so VARIES hopes to cut out the "middle man" and pull the stuff directly from quantum fluctuations in the interstellar space it is voyaging through.
This visualization shows the VARIES lasers in operation, feeding the antimatter collection apparatus with antimatter particles.
Solar Power As the VARIES concept is a return mission, the starship would need the capability to recharge when it has arrived near the target star. Unfurling a huge array of solar panels, the vehicle will generate and store the vast power required to operate its laser system.
VARIES Underway Obousy: "One critical and unique component to the VARIES architecture is our proposal that proton-antiproton pair creation can be generated from the vacuum, given a sufficiently powerful electric field. Spontaneous particle creation from the vacuum by an external electric field has been applied to numerous problems in contemporary particle physics, including black hole quantum evaporation and electron-positron creation in the vicinity of charged black holes."
Although the VARIES concept is in a very early stage of development, a peer-reviewed article has been published: Obousy, R.K., "Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System", JBIS 64 No.11/12 pp 378-386 (2011).
For more information on VARIES, read Richard Obousy's Discovery News guest article: "Using Lasers and Antimatter to Trek to the Stars."
To see more of Adrian Mann's artwork, visit his website "This Is Rocket Science."
To find out more about Icarus Interstellar and the organization's projects, visit their project pages.