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VARIES project proposes antimatter starship mission

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July 18, 2012

The VARIES starship creates its own antimatter for interstellar voyages

The VARIES starship creates its own antimatter for interstellar voyages

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As Douglas Adams said, “Space is Big. Really Big." And that’s the major obstacle for traveling between the stars. But a new proposal published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society promises to shrink that distance just a bit. Physics and technology consultant Richard Obousy claims that an antimatter starship that creates its own fuel from the vacuum of space itself would be capable of making a return journey to the nearest star and back within one lifetime.

Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to grasp just how vast space is. The American space probe Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, yet is only now reaching the edge of our Solar System despite hurtling along at 38,000 mph (61,000 kph). At its present velocity, it would take 70,000 years to reach the nearest star – and it’s not even pointed in the right direction. Even NASA’s Solar Probe, a mission to study the Sun’s corona that will use an interplanetary slingshot maneuver to reach record speeds, would take 6,450 years. Needless to say, the odds of getting funding for a mission that will take longer to reach its destination than the whole of recorded history aren't that great.

What’s worse, a mission to another star won’t be worth much if it doesn’t produce any tangible results. Even if you could build a probe capable of reaching another system, a flyby mission isn’t going to be worth much if the probe blurs through it inside of a few hours at speeds too fast to see anything. Not to mention that all the data and samples aren’t going to be worth a bean if Mission Control doesn’t receive the results. That means any interstellar craft has to be fast enough to get to the next star, slow down and orbit the star long enough to do the science and then return to Earth with the results.

The upshot is that such a mission would require incredible amounts of energy that even some sort of fusion drive would have trouble delivering. Based on current science, the only energy source that has a shot of throwing a starship across the void and back in a reasonable time, say 50 years, is antimatter. That’s the idea behind Obousy’s VARIES proposal: Vacuum to Antimatter-Rocket Interstellar Explorer System.

The principle behind VARIES is as simple as it is theoretically cutting edge. It’s based on something from quantum mechanics called a “Schwinger pair production." According to quantum theory, particles in a vacuum don’t exactly exist. They’re only “sort of” there as an expression of probability. We don’t notice this on our scale because the probabilities balance themselves out. However, on a quantum scale, it’s a different story. One upshot of this is that it’s believed that if you tip the scales of probability by subjecting a vacuum to a powerful electric field, it will cause particles of matter (or antimatter) to spontaneously appear.

If this phenomenon pans out, VARIES would exploit it by way of an unmanned starship with huge solar panels that would collect the sun’s rays. These would, in turn, power banks of x-ray free electron lasers to charge the vacuum and create antimatter, which would then be collected and stored aboard as fuel for the journey.

This sounds very simple, but the engineering would be herculean, to say the least. In addition to building the solar power system and the lasers, the starship would also need magnetic bottles to store the antimatter. Otherwise, one instant of contact between ship and antimatter would vaporize both in a flash of gamma rays. Then magnetic nozzles would be required to handle the fuel as well as radiation shielding and all the other precautions needed to protect a craft flying through interstellar space at speeds where striking a dust mote is like hitting an atom bomb.

If all of these obstacles can be overcome the VARIES mission would proceed in stages. After fueling up in solar orbit, the ship would accelerate to a fraction of the speed of light. It would then coast, studying the interstellar medium as it traveled. After a few years, the ship would turn tail and decelerate until it reached its destination. It would then go into orbit around the star and conduct its exploration program while refueling in the new sun’s rays. Then it would leave the for home, accelerating, coasting and decelerating as before.

At present, VARIES is still merely a proposal with a long research shopping list attached, but if things work out, the path to the stars might be a little closer to reality.

Obousy's paper can be downloaded here as a PDF.

Source: British Interplanetary Society, Richard Obousy

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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19 Comments

I believe space has zero gravity, but is is really absolutely zero? If not surely there would a significant G-force on the whole unit at such acceleration levels? Wouldn't want to be designing this unit if that were true!

livin_the_dream
18th July, 2012 @ 11:23 pm PDT

Good article and that's a novel way of creating anti-matter. This is an area of science that has always intrigued me, because I'd love for us to travel to other stars.

I knew that anti-matter would be the means, since it's real and doable while other ideas like traveling through wormholes, are just in the realm of fantasy. But why would they need huge solar panels as an energy source to generate anti-matter particles?

Why not use nuclear reactors preferably thorium based or fusion if they require more energy, once that technology matures? The ideas are out there, we can do this-with the right amount of funding and putting the best minds to work on it. What could be greater than having humans discover other potential earth-like planets and colonizing them or making space travel routine.

With the trillions of stars and planets in the universe out there, it's a pity that we can't as yet visit even a few of them. But if the will and money was there, it could be done.

John Stone
18th July, 2012 @ 11:54 pm PDT

VARIES will need to have a strong magnetic-gravitational field around the craft to protect it, otherwise high radiation zones and big chunky things, as well as those nasty "dust motes", will be too hazardous for any hull.

Also, keeping a constant 1G environment in the craft at all times, even past light speed, would be handy, and even crucial, for a crew.

Nuclear engineer MT Keshe of the Keshe Foundation says he has figured out the above problems, by creating artificial gravity using fields. He is planning speedy spacecrafts and other vehicles that work by magnetic-gravitational positioning:

http://www.keshefoundation.org/en/applications/space

warning: much of this will seem utterly unbelievable...

mrfixitrick
19th July, 2012 @ 01:12 am PDT

I wonder if it is possible to reach the destination and then beem back the data to eath. This would greatly cut down on the round trip time required get results.

Mark Lombardi
19th July, 2012 @ 06:02 am PDT

Here we have somebody who is at least on the border of scientifcally respectable suggesting using devices based on the laws of physics as we know them to break the laws of physics as we know them, and nobody seems in any way concerned. He is proposing "creating" antimatter to provide enough energy to achieve adequately short trip times by 'summoning it up' from 'empty' space and expending less energy in the process than he gains as a result. Conservation of energy (and a few other "laws" as well) would be quietlyt pushed aside if this were to prove possible. Which suggests ...

Russell McMahon
19th July, 2012 @ 09:11 am PDT

@Mark Lombardi

I think it was recently discovered that radio emissions made by Earth dissolve before they ever can reach even the closest star. So the old idea that aliens from another star are watching Hitler reels or episodes of The Honeymooners is out the window. Recent advancements in laser technology might make it possible to send some kind of message from that kind of distance though. Still, the problem of communication might solve itself before the ship were to ever be built.

Jay Lloyd
19th July, 2012 @ 11:09 am PDT

Livin the dream: If you accelerate in space, you create a force, similar to gravity, just created by acceleration, not mass. Accelerating at 1G would feel like being on the surface of Earth and you could reach the speed of light in a bit more than 1 year, unless there is a real constraint to acceleration in the Universe, as predicted by Einstein.

Alfredo Balmaseda
19th July, 2012 @ 12:21 pm PDT

@mrfixitrick, please don't post that scam artists website (keshe) anywhere near scientific articles. He has tickets to the moon to sell you. I have a bridge I can sell you...

Walter Matheric
19th July, 2012 @ 01:35 pm PDT

Whatever happenned to good ol'fashioned DiLithium Crystal Annihilation power? I guess i'm out of touch with the new generation. Seriously, isn't this a half-assed attempt to get funding for something that will never achieve any tangible results, not require any accountability, basically to be paid by the Government (that's US...) to smoke dope and dream? Want to make something that would be REALLY cool? Try concentrating on Fussion power. At least THAT seems attainable and would benefit Mankind in THIS millenium.

@ Mike Lombardi: The problem with making random interstellar phonecalls is you never know who might pick up the phone. Not so sure I want our galactic address being posted randomly on the Universal Net.

Burnerjack
19th July, 2012 @ 02:37 pm PDT

I'd have to say that this is good scifi for sure. I'll also take a transporter, holodeck, and replicator.... maybe some day. But yah, spending money on anything as remotely far fetched as this is right now, would be stoopider than spending more money on defense. Might as well combine the two and build an intergalactic warship for when the other guys stop by for a visit.

Samuel Arbizo
19th July, 2012 @ 05:43 pm PDT

Ok, so Antimater starship idea, Is it fast? How fast is fast enough and where would you go? Is this the mining ship of the future, to carry miners and get resources for our planet?

What will it cost to build and how long will we be paying for it?

Gargamoth
19th July, 2012 @ 06:17 pm PDT

@Russell McMahon

If you can not summon up energy from nothing, then where did you come from?

christopher
19th July, 2012 @ 06:47 pm PDT

re; Russell McMahon

E=mc2 In August 1945 it was conclusively demonstrated that a little matter could be converted to a great deal of energy. Some were along the way it was theorized that a great deal of energy could be converted into a tiny bit matter; the whole = thing. This was demonstrated years ago I read about it in either Popular Mechanics or Popular Science I subscribed to both at the time. Shine enough energy into a box and you get matter. Antimatter is just matter that has reversed electrical charges and when it comes into contact with regular matter converts both to energy, mostly Gama rays. The question is whether they can reliably produce of antimatter.

It should also be noted that "fuel" and "reaction mass" are not necessarily synonymous in rocketry.

Slowburn
19th July, 2012 @ 07:40 pm PDT

Has science ever observed anti-matter?

kuryus
20th July, 2012 @ 12:19 pm PDT

@kuryus, not only have we observed antimatter in nature, we've created it in the lab, as well.

Duane R. Waite
20th July, 2012 @ 02:20 pm PDT

That's a better tool for applying the "Kzinti Lesson" than Larry Niven used in his short story "The Warriors" where the crew of 'Angel's Pencil' used their farking huge laser drive to slice up an attacking Kzinti spacecraft.

Gregg Eshelman
20th July, 2012 @ 06:20 pm PDT

Humanity is spectacularly near-sighted and just walking around barefoot in space presently. Our technology is so primitive that talk of interstellar exploration is entirely premature. However, if we keep our noodles to the grindstone, we have the capacity to grasp much more than we currently do. We know nothing of gravity, and our motors use electromotive electromagnetism exclusively. What engines of travel and discovery will our children pick up from understanding the Weak and Strong nuclear forces? Will fusion technology become commonplace Back to the Future? Only time can tell us, but past is prologue, and if advances continue apace we can expect wonders to see abounding in our lifetimes, now that we have removed some of the crazy savage hatreds from our politics. The galaxies and stars accelerate away from us, and opportunities to explore dim with them. So keep our minds open, and make our hearts keep yearning. A time may come.

TogetherinParis
21st July, 2012 @ 11:53 am PDT

re; TogetherinParis

If you wait until you think you have the technology to do something before talking about it it will never happen.

Slowburn
23rd July, 2012 @ 12:53 am PDT

Talking about how things are useless. I'd say that the light bulb and the airplane are two very useless objects. At least according to the people at the time of development. BTW, the light bulb is a direct predecessor of all of the electronic gadgets in use today. As for the airplane, well it lead to having folks being able flying to different countries in a few hours instead of months. It also lead to the helicopter which at a minimum can be used as an air ambulance.

We have always had nay-sayers throughout history, And for the majority of the time they have been WRONG. Without people dreaming of better ways to do things we would still be living in caves.

JMOdom
16th June, 2014 @ 06:55 pm PDT
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