Antimatter Propulsion and its Implications in Interstellar Transportation

How to Fast Travel the Universe.

Photo by Eric Dalrymple on Unsplash

Humans have always been trying to go faster. Whether it’s to complete a task more efficiently, beat another in a race, or explore the unexplored, mankind has a certain knack for finding ways to get things done in a sprint. In many regards, we have already gone extremely fast; and these feats alone are quite spectacular.

Here are just a few examples…

Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi in the UAE is the world’s fastest roller coaster. It reaches a max speed of 149mph, and utilizes a hydraulic launch system to reach that speed in a mere 4.9 seconds, giving riders a sensational 4.8Gs of force. (Ferrari World Abu Dhabi)
Or how about supersonic jets? After decades of research, humans were able to finally break the sound barrier in regards to aircraft speed (roughly 767mph). We even constructed a supersonic commercial aircraft known as the Concorde, which was eventually decommissioned. (Photo by Timothy Newman on Unsplash)
Man’s earlier experimentations with space travel are even more impressive. During the Apollo 10 space mission, the crew traveled at an astounding 24,790mph whilst on their way back to earth from lunar orbit. This is the fastest that humans have ever traveled relative to earth.

These are all super amazing examples of human ingenuity and capability for going fast — but we have hardly even scratched the surface of what science can offer us in terms of speed.

In many regards, humans have already discovered the limits to earthly travel. Sure, there remains extensive development and research in the fields of high speed transportation, but it is already possible to travel anywhere in the world in a reasonable amount of time. To realize the maximum potential for human velocity, we must look to the stars.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Space Travel and Propulsion Mechanisms

It is common knowledge that our current chemical rockets are very slow in context to the massive scale of space — it would take tens of thousands of years to even reach our closest star in our current rockets. While we have no immediate need to travel beyond our solar system any time soon, numerous space companies have already begun investing in research for more efficient propulsion technology. Even to accomplish many near future possibilities, such as frequent commercial travel between Earth and Mars, we need to completely revolutionize our way of traveling in space.

There are many options that researchers and engineers have considered adopting as the next great propulsion technology, some more developed than others. Popular examples include ion thrusters (very efficient but not very fast), solar sails (uses the radiation pressure exerted by the sun to propel spacecraft in the opposite direction), fusion reactors (those don’t exist yet), and even shooting nuclear bombs behind spacecraft to propel it forward (it’s about as reasonable as it sounds). So, what’s the solution then? One option proposed is antimatter propulsion.

So, what is antimatter propulsion anyways?

Ok, I feel obligated to disclaim to you that antimatter is a very strange and rare substance still in early stages of research. This means that, for all relevant purposes, antimatter propulsion is still a far off possibility. However, while it might not be the most immediate remedy to faster human space travel, it is an exciting prospect, especially with future development and research. Also, it will allow us to truly go fast.

To describe antimatter briefly, it is essentially identical to regular matter, except that antimatter possess opposite charges of their respective normal matter counterpart. For example, the antimatter phase of an electron is called a positron, which is essentially an electron with a positive charge instead of a negative one.

Ok… so there’s an equal but opposite particle for every particle of matter that makes the universe what it is… but if that is the case, why do we not see antimatter molecules, antimatter water, antimatter planets, or antimatter people? This is due to a process called annihilation, and it occurs whenever antimatter and matter interact. Just as the name suggests, when an electron and positron interact, they annihilate, releasing nothing but pure energy. This process is actually the most efficient method of producing energy known in the universe. Now it makes sense why humans have been interested in using antimatter annihilation for transportation purposes.

(Image: © NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Where we are now…

Alright, we’ve learned why antimatter annihilates and how it is the universe’s most efficient fuel source, now let’s just grab a bunch of antimatter, throw it in a rocket ship and viola, interstellar travel! Sadly, it appears that it is not going to be that easy.

Firstly, antimatter is a very rare substance, and humans have only been able to produce a few hundred antimatter particles at one time — which alone requires extremely delicate and expensive equipment located at only a few places in the world such as CERN. Additionally, positrons are extremely hot — over a million times hotter than the sun in fact. This property, along with the aforementioned tendency to annihilate and produce a large amount of energy, makes positrons extremely difficult to contain and manage. Finally, positron annihilation produces gamma rays, which are extremely powerful and potentially dangerous if not directed correctly. In our current state, we do not have a method of directing gamma rays (let me know if you solve fusion, a couple very important companies would like to hear about your findings then).

Particle Accelerator. Photo provided by CERN.

However, hard does not mean impossible, and a few companies have attempted to begin researching the implications of antimatter propulsion, namely Positron Dynamics. This company, led by physicists Ryan Weed and Joshua Machacek, aims to create an antimatter rocket, or at least lay the groundwork for the creation of one in the future. One big innovation that they have worked on revolves around cooling these insanely hot positrons to become more usable in the environment of a delicate space engine hurtling hundreds of thousands of miles through space. They have even received funding from NASA, among various other investors, but have appeared to die out of the limelight following their initial popularization a few years ago, and little updates have come from them since.

While fully functional antimatter rockets seem far off right now, we have a lot to be invested in. With this technology fully realized, we may have the ability to reach almost anywhere in the universe within a single lifetime. By accelerating at a constant 1G, human astronauts will be able to travel close to the speed of light, opening up countless opportunities for interplanetary travel and colonization becoming commonplace rather than once in a decade occurrences. With antimatter propulsion, we can make science fiction a reality as we hop from galaxy to galaxy in the constant search of our place and purpose among the stars. So while we may not be able to experience the unveiling of these historic feats, we can work to bring it about for our children and grandchildren, and that is something to be excited about.

Thank you for reading my first Medium article. I appreciate your time and feedback if you would like to help me improve my writing.

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High School student, interested in tech, engineering, saxophone, film, and esports among other things.

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Timothy Simmons

Timothy Simmons

High School student, interested in tech, engineering, saxophone, film, and esports among other things.

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