Spaceships powered by antimatter, fusion drives seen in 50-60 years
The days of sci-fi shows like "Star Trek," where antimatter and fusion drives are harnessed to power starships, may be upon us sooner than we think.
Researchers expect ships to use antimatter and nuclear fusion in making long trips in space before the end of this century, Space.com reported.
“(It's) probably not a 40-year technology, but 50, 60? Quite possible, and something that would have a significant impact on exploration by changing the mass-power-finance calculus when planning,” Space.com quoted Jason Hay, a senior aerospace technology analyst for consulting firm The Tauri Group, as saying.
Hay made the assessment during an Aug. 29 presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group.
Space.com said the next big breakthrough in space propulsion systems may come in the year 2060 or so.
It also cited a 2010 report by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration indicating a fusion-powered spacecraft could reach Jupiter in four months.
This could potentially pave the way for manned exploration in parts of the outer solar system, it quoted the NASA report as saying.
But there are obstacles to be overcome, including the production and storage of antimatter.
"To make the technology feasible, but some experts imagine it could be ready to go in a half-century or so," Space.com said.
Space.com said a fusion-driven spaceship will likely use small pellets containing deuterium and tritium, heavy isotopes of hydrogen that have one or two neutrons, respectively, in their nuclei.
By comparison, a common hydrogen atom has no neutrons.
This fuel would be surrounded likely by uranium.
A beam of antiprotons would be directed at the pellets. The antiprotons and the matter would annihilate each other, "generating high-energy fission products that ignite fusion reactions in the fuel," Space.com said.
“The energy from these reactions could be used to heat a propellant or provide thrust through magnetic confinement and a magnetic nozzle,” it quoted NASA's 2010 report as saying.
Yet, Space.com said the basic idea is not new - Project Daedalus, a study conducted by the British Interplanetary Society in the 1970s, had proposed using a fusion rocket to power an interstellar spacecraft.
The only difference is that Daedalus’ fusion reactions would be sparked by electron beams instead of antiproton beams.
Another —and likely the biggest— challenge is obtaining enough antiprotons, which can be produced in particle accelerators, and storing them long enough.
The NASA report indicated about 1.16 grams of antiprotons would be needed for a trip to Jupiter, which Hay said would be expensive.
“Antiprotons are extremely expensive; a few grams would cost multi-trillions of dollars. I believe the total production so far since the 1950s is on the order of like 10 nanograms,” he said.
But he added technology could advance soon enough to hurdle this obstacle. — TJD, GMA News
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