What would it be like to travel in outer space and see all the planets of the Solar System or even beyond? What if it were possible to cover longer distances in less time? Those are the questions not only of Sci-Fi writers but also of astronomers and astrophysicists. According to Space.com, it would take the Voyager 1 spacecraft over 73,000 years to reach Proxima b, the nearest confirmed exoplanet and the place where, some believe, life could exist. The Voyager 1 is currently traveling away from the sun at 10.7 miles per second (17.3 kilometers per second).
There is already an alternative on the table: an antimatter engine. With such a propulsion mechanism, it would take twenty years for a spacecraft to reach Proxima b. Over four years later, humanity would be able to see the first images of the surface of a new Earth-like world.
Gerald Jackson is a physicist who left Fermilab to found Hbar Technologies, a company dedicated to the development of this antimatter engine. Antimatter has the potential to be the fuel for a machine that would accelerate a ship to relativistic speeds, which means nothing more than a percentage of speed significant enough for time dilation to be observable according to the theory of relativity. That is to say: fast enough to reach a very distant place without several generations of humans being born and dying along the way.
“There are many scenarios where humanity may find that it needs to quickly send spacecraft into interstellar space,” Jackson told Space.com in an email. “In my opinion antimatter-based propulsion is the best solution for such a need.”
Jackson and fellow physicist Steven Howe have reportedly developed an antimatter propulsion system light enough to push the mass needed to safely send scientific instruments to Proxima Centauri. In their latest proposal to NASA in 2020, their system consists of two stages. The first is the propulsion stage, which would accelerate the spacecraft to 10% of the speed of light. The second would perform the necessary deceleration so that a swarm of microspacecraft could collect high-resolution images of Proxima b using LiDAR laser scanning technologies and then send them back to Earth.
There are many scenarios where humanity may find that it needs to quickly send spacecraft into interstellar space.Gerald Jackson, physicist
In 2022, Jackson published another study describing an antiproton-induced nuclear fission spacecraft. According to the physicist, his new design includes a beam of uranium contained in an electrostatic trap that is bombarded by antiprotons. It is only one part of a system that is obviously much more complex and presents major engineering challenges even though theoretical physics says it is all feasible.
“The scope of this technical note is limited to the nuclear physics of antiproton-induced fission, the classical physics of collimating charged exhaust particles, and the accelerator physics of a particle trap inside which fission events are generated,” the study states. “Other vital issues, such as antimatter production and storage, are the subject of papers in other journals more appropriate to these topics.”
One such obstacle is the production of antiprotons, which right now are only produced in particle accelerators such as CERN’s. According to Jackson and Howe, 7 grams of antihydrogen are required to reach Proxima Centauri b. It would require, however, the prior investment of a fuel factory costing several billion dollars. According to some of Jackson’s other published studies, the antimatter engine has the potential to reach maximum speeds of up to 40% of the speed of light.
The goal of using and antimatter engine to reach Proxima Centauri b is just one of many uses for this technology. “There are many scenarios in which humanity may need to quickly send spacecraft into interstellar space,” Jackson told Space.com. These engines could also be used within the solar system, something that would reduce the journeys from months and years to days and hours.