Could Antimatter Space Travel Take Us to the Stars?
Could we use antimatter-based
propulsion to visit alien worlds?
by J.Y. Jones MD
An article on Space.com caught my eye, as I’ve been involved in this very question since 1991, when I began laying out the scientific and writing outline for my only science fiction novel, Lightspeed to Babylon. Here’s what Space.com said:
Could we use antimatter-based propulsion to visit alien worlds? (Laurence Tognetti, Space.com, 31 Jan 2023). Tognetti examines the feasibility of using antimatter for propulsion. It’s been thought of for years. Could it work?
Astronomers are finding new exoplanets almost every day, but due to the incredible distances between star systems, space exploration has been limited to our solar system. For example, it is estimated that the Voyager 1 spacecraft, presently traveling away from the sun at 10.7 miles per second (17.3 kilometers per second), would take over 73,000 years to reach Proxima b, the nearest confirmed exoplanet.
But what if traveling to exoplanets were no longer the purview of science fiction? What if we could actually do it?
To solve this physics-defying conundrum, scientists would have to turn to propulsion systems that are far more advanced than the chemical rockets we currently employ for our exploration needs. One such proposed technology is antimatter-based propulsion, which, as its name implies, involves using antimatter to power a spacecraft to velocities reaching a few percent of the speed of light.
My Sci-Fi Novel
I chose the title Lightspeed to Babylon, perhaps a little unconventional, but sharing both scientific and Biblical origins, to me it represented a good indication of the book’s contents. It still leaves much to the imagination, like the original title, yet manages to get across some of the essence of my fledgling book.
From the beginning this was intended to be a short story that countered the radical animal rights movement and its ultimate destructive effect on the world if carried to its logical extreme. However, in a manner almost beyond my control, the manuscript gradually expanded and morphed into what I am told is a serious science fiction novel.
In a previous article, I have addressed the animal rights connection that is the real theme of the book, but in this present article I want to discuss space travel in general, and the antimatter question (as well as gravity) specifically. The more I studied and wrote, the more length was added, so I ultimately went with a full-scale book as my objective.
Unconventional Space Travel
As Lightspeed to Babylon begins, the question of gravity has already been solved, a presumption highly unlikely to occur this century—or perhaps ever. The book assumes this essential solution to the point that all featured spacecraft and space stations already have earth-like artificial gravity. This was so that the story would not take on a distracting struggle for survival in a weightless (or nearly so) environment, making solar system travel and indefinite occupation of deep space stations much less problematic and actually quite feasible.
As well, there is a developmental sequence in engines to achieve adequate thrust, progressing from today’s conventional hydrogen-oxygen engines still in use early in the book, then to nuclear pulse engines which in theory might achieve “nickel C,” or 0.05 of the speed of light, using controlled sequential nuclear explosions (much like a gasoline engine uses an explosive mixture to sequentially and in controlled fashion move the pistons in orderly manner). Even this modest speed, by fictional standards, shrinks the Solar System to a day’s travel.
In the book, subsequent testing and discovery reveals that antimatter conversion might hold promise to deliver awesome, plentiful, even inexhaustible power. The eventual starship that emerged in the book, the Ursa C, was the epitome of a late 21st Century spacecraft. In the book, I give only sketchy details about how this might work, because I’m no engineer and in truth not many people know an awful lot about antimatter and its potential applications.
Antimatter in Science, Medicine and Cosmology
Nevertheless, antimatter is already being applied in science and medicine, though it’s extremely expensive to generate. PET scans effectively localize cancerous tissue by measuring the destruction of injected positrons (the positively charged electron found in antimatter) by negatively charged electrons from matter.
Antimatter should have been generated in equal amounts with regular matter at the time of the so-called Big Bang, and its absence (half the universe, if you follow that theory) is highly problematic for Big Bang cosmology. One known property is that when antimatter encounters matter, it is exploded, which is what happens to injected positrons in a PET scan. If this explosive tendency could be utilized by developing a cheap and reliable source of antimatter, the possibilities for propulsion could be unlimited. As a matter of record, the Starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame was powered (on the fictional show, of course) by antimatter engines. For more details on potential uses of antimatter, read Mark Halper’s article from 20112.
History of Antimatter Science and Gravity Theories
I must note that the existence of antimatter had been suspected since 1932, when scientist Carl Anderson discovered positrons, or the above-mentioned positively charged electrons. By implication, these shouldn’t originate from matter, but from its elusive twin, antimatter, which theoretically should have negatively charged protons and positively charged electrons. It is disappointing that little progress has been made since then in discovering the exact nature and extent of antimatter in the universe, and certainly harnessing its theoretical potential for producing thrust in a spaceship remains the substance of science fiction.
Gravity, in the end, will likely become more important than speed, when it comes to space exploration, and of equal importance will be creating an electromagnetic shield to protect spacecraft and planet/moon bases from ionizing radiation, which is ubiquitous in space. Since I assume in Lightspeed to Babylon that these all-important aspects have become conventional knowledge at that point, further elaboration is probably unnecessary, as it would only add speculation to imagination.
Even Einstein was unable to devise a unified theory that fully explained gravity, although he did come up with a working definition. His modified ideas still hold sway today, with gravity being broadly defined as a warping of spacetime by any material body with mass. Nevertheless, we are left with little to work with as far as creating a structure that would generate usable (Earth-like) gravity for use in spacecraft or space stations on other bodies such as planets and moons.
Until we do come up with such a system (perhaps powered by antimatter), manned missions to far bodies such as Mars, or even a permanent base on the Moon, are doomed to failure. Deterioration of the human body begins as soon as it is subjected to insufficient gravity, and likely proceeds to death if sustained for a long enough period of time. This alone makes any proposed manned trip to Mars a probable suicide mission, even if the return fuel problem is somehow resolved.
What Is Gravity?
One partial solution to this perplexing need for gravity is the use of centrifugal force, or rotation of the spacecraft to create a form of “gravity.” (How to rotate a whole space station is another obstacle to this method.) While some benefit could potentially result from this approach, it is not sufficient to create the kind and amount of gravity to which we humans are accustomed, nor has powering the rotation been solved. Additionally, the shield from cosmic radiation is still only theoretical. But there may be some significant potential found in an investigation of possibilities.
Gravity, even though defined by Einstein, is still quite a mysterious force that mostly defies full understanding. The Holy Bible says it best, where it is stated of Jesus Christ, “For by Him all things were created, in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”3 (Italics mine).
In summary, antimatter is the only material I could conceive that might offer unlimited potential to produce that critical commodity for space travel: unlimited thrust, right up to the light speed threshold. Maybe we’ll get there someday!
- Could we use antimatter-based propulsion to visit alien worlds? By Laurence Tognetti, https://www.space.com/antimatter-propulsion-visiting-exoplanets, January 31,2023.
- https://www.zdnet.com/article/the-practical-uses-of-antimatter; post originally appeared on www.smartplanet.com.
- Colossians 1:16-17 (NASB).
J.Y. Jones MD has been an eye physician and surgeon for five decades. He is a decorated Vietnam veteran, speaks Spanish, and has volunteered in 28 overseas eye-surgery mission trips. He has received numerous awards for writing and photography, and is a frequent speaker at sportsmen’s events, where he particularly enjoys sharing his Christian testimony. J. Y. and his wife Linda have been married since 1964.
Dr. Jones is an avid hunter who has taken all North American big game species using the same Remington .30-06 rifle, resulting in the book One Man, One Rifle, One Land (Safari Press, 2001); Dr. Jones helped Safari Press produce the Ask the Guides series, their most successful North American hunting books. He has written 14 books and some 300 short articles for various periodicals. For more articles by Dr Jones, visit his Author Profile page.
—Ed. note: Dr Jones’ novel Lightspeed to Babylon is a dramatic, engaging science-fiction story of how radical environmentalism leads to a world government dictatorship. The plot involves dramatic plot twists from predator encounters to futuristic space travel. An adventurous read: highly recommended!