Positron Drive: Fill ‘er Up For Pluto

Computer illustration of a potential antimatter drive. Image credit: Positronics Research LLC. Click to enlarge.
We all played the game as children – “leapfrog” involved one child squatting on all fours while a second placed their hands on the first’s shoulders. Braced against the pull of gravity, the standing child bends at the legs deeply then thrusts up and over the top of the first. The result? The second child now squats and the another froglike leap follows in turn. Not the most efficient way to get to the swing set – but a lot of fun in the right company!

Leapfrogging however is not the same as ‘bootstrapping’. While bootstrapping, a single player bends and grabs the leather loops on the outside of both boots. The player then makes a tremendous exertion upward with the arms. Leapfrogging works – bootstrapping doesn’t, it just can’t be done without hopping – an entirely different thing altogether.

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) believes in leapfrogging – no not on the playground but in aerospace. From the institutes own website: “NIAC encourages proposers to think decades into the future in pursuit of concepts that will “leapfrog” the evolution of current aerospace systems.” NIAC is looking for a few good ideas and is willing to support them with six-month-long seed grants to test feasibility before serious research and development funds – available from NASA and elsewhere – are allocated. Hopefully such seeds are allowed to germinate and future investment grows them to maturity.

NIAC wants to separate out leapfrogging from bootstrapping, however. One works and the other makes no sense whatsoever. According to NIAC, the positron drive could lead to a giant leap forward in the way we travel throughout the solar system and beyond. There’s probably no bootstrapping about it.

Consider the positron – mirror twin of the electron – like human twins, a very rare thing. Unlike human twins, a positron is unlikely to survive the birth process. Why? Because positrons and their siblings – electrons – find each other irresistible and quickly annihilate in a burst of soft gamma rays. But that burst, under controlled circumstances, can be converted into any form of ‘work’ you might want to do.

Need light? Mix a positron and an electron then irradiate a gas to incandescence. Need electricity? Mix another pair and irradiate a metal strip. Need thrust? Shoot those gamma rays into a propellant, heat it to outlandishly high temperatures and push the propellant out the back of the rocket. Or, shoot those gamma rays into tungsten plates in a stream of air, heat that air and jettison it out the back of an aircraft.

Imagine having a supply of positrons – what could you do with them? According to Gerald A. Smith, Principle Investigator for Positronics Research, LLC of Sante Fe, New Mexico you could go just about anywhere, “the energy density of antimatter is ten orders of magnitude greater than chemical and three orders of magnitude greater than nuclear fission or fusion energy.”

And what does this mean in terms of propulsion? “Less weight, far, far, far less weight.”

Using chemically based propulsion systems, 55 percent of the weight associated with the Huygens-Cassini probe sent to explore Saturn was found in the probe’s fuel and oxidizer tanks. Meanwhile to hurl the probes 5650 kg of weight beyond the Earth required a launch vehicle weighing some 180 times that of fully-fueled Cassini-Huygens itself (1,032,350 kgs).

Using Dr. Smith’s numbers alone – and only considering the maneuvering thrust required for Cassini-Huygens using positron-electron annihilation, the 3100 kgs of chemical propellant burdening the original 1997 probe could be reduced to a mere 310 micrograms of electrons and positrons – less matter than that found in a single atomized drop of morning mist. And with this reduction in mass the total launch weight from Canaveral to Saturn could easily be reduced by a factor of two.

But positron-electron annihilation is like having plenty of air but absolutely no gasoline ? your car won?t get far on oxygen alone. Electrons are everywhere, while positrons are not naturally available on Earth. In fact where they do occur – near black hole event horizons or for short periods of time after high energy particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere – they soon find one of those ubiquitous electrons and go photonic. For this reason you have to make your own.

Enter the particle accelerator
Companies such as Positronics Research, headed up by Dr. Smith, are working on technologies inherent in the use of particle accelerators – like the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) located in Menlo Park, California. Particle accelerators create positrons using electron-positron pair-production techniques. This is done by smashing a relativistically accelerated electron beam into a dense tungsten target. The electron beam is then converted into high energy photons which move through the tungsten and turn into matched sets of electrons and positrons. The problem before Dr. Smith and others creating positrons is easier than trapping, storing, transporting, and using them effectively.

Meanwhile during pair-production, all you’ve really done is packed a whole lot of earth-bound energy into extremely small amounts of highly volatile – but extremely light-weight – fuel. That process itself is extremely inefficient and introduces major technical challenges related to accumulating enough anti-particles to power a spacecraft capable of journeying into the Great Beyond at velocities making large space probe – and human spacetravel – possible. How is all this likely to play out?

According to Dr. Smith, “for many years physicists have squeezed positrons out of the tungsten targets by colliding the positrons with matter, slowing them down by a thousand or so to use in high resolution microscopes. This process is horribly inefficient; only one millionth of the positrons survive. For space travel we need to increase the slowing down efficiency by at least a factor of one thousand. After four years of hard work with electromagnetic traps in our labs, we are preparing to capture and cool five trillion positrons per second in the next few years. Our long-range goals are five quad-trillion positrons per second. At this rate we could fuel up for our first positron-fueled flight into space in a matter of hours.”

While it is true that a positron-annihilation engine also requires propellent (typically in the form of compressed hydrogen gas), the amount of propellant itself is reduced to almost 10 percent of that required by a conventional rocket – since no oxidizer is needed to react with the fuel. Meanwhile, future craft may actually be able to scoop propellant up from the solar wind and interstellar medium. This should also lead to a significant reduction in the launch weight of such spacecraft.

Written by Jeff Barbour

One Reply to “Positron Drive: Fill ‘er Up For Pluto”

Comments are closed.