Antimatter: Coming Soon to a Warp Nacelle Near You?

By Kevin Grazier | September 3, 2010 11:57 am

Any Trekker (or Trekkie) knows that the warp drives in Federation starships are powered by dilithium-moderated matter/antimatter reactions. When matter and antimatter come into contact:  BOOM! There’s a huge release of energy and the Enterprise leaps ahead at incredible speeds. Of course that’s all sci-fi, right?

What fewer Trekkers, and the public in general, realize is that antimatter is not solely the purview of science fiction: it actually exists in the real Universe–it’s not just a common sci-fi MacGuffin (like, say, artificial gravity)–and it’s not crazy to suggest it as a possible propulsion system for futuristic spacecraft. Antimatter, in short, is the same as normal matter except with the charges flipped: protons take on a negative charge (anti-protons), and electrons reverse charge to become positrons. Our Sun creates antimatter during the proton-proton chain–the fusion reaction that generates the majority of its energy; some cosmological models even suggest that antimatter should be as common as matter in our Universe. And of course antimatter is huge in sci-fi. In one of the better TOS episodes, Spock observed that the Doomsday Machine’s weapon was “…pure anti-proton…”–an antimatter particle beam.

Sci-fi generally does a good job of showing what happens when matter comes into contact with antimatter: BOOM. When particles of matter interact with theirSwitzerland  Antimatter Detector antiparticles, through the process of pair annihilation the mass of both particles is converted completely into energy–gamma rays–via the dictates of E=mc2. We still don’t know if antimatter is as common as matter in the Universe; perhaps there are entire galaxies composed chiefly of antimatter, galaxies insulated from their matter counterparts by the vast distances of inter-galactic space. One of the last (permanent) residents of the International Space Station, the CERN-built Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (at right being loaded onto a Air Force C-5 Galaxy), may help us understand how ubiquitous antimatter is in the Universe, as well as aiding scientists in determining the nature of dark matter.

So will the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer teach us the secrets of antimatter, leading inexorably to its storage, manipulation, and use? Yes…and no. The first half of that statement is true: AMS may help physicists understand the ubiquity of antimatter and perhaps have a better grasp on the nature of our universe. Understanding the nature of antimatter as a precursor to using it? That’s more of a leap. It’s the kind of statement one might make in a work of science fiction to advance a plot point (trust me on this), but it makes less sense in the real world. Both producing and containing antimatter are currently way beyond our capabilities. But if scientists could design, and engineers could build, a vessel to contain antimatter, it would go a long way towards solving our planet’s energy needs.

As far as a viable matter/antimatter propulsion, it turns out that NASA has, in fact, researched just that–spacecraft with antimatter-based propulsion systems.  Of course the Trekkers are keenly aware of the dangers associated with the term “containment failure”, and that would be a real consideration if the antimatter had to be stored. The drives being researched by NASA would be very different from the antimatter pulse drive I wrote about previously, and would generate/use antimatter–to use a business term–on a “just in time” basis. This type of main engine would dramatically cut the travel time, and open up for exploration, to countless destinations within the Solar System.


Vacations on Mars via Antimatter Express–who’s coming with me?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Space Flight

Comments (10)

  1. I could be mistaken but I remember reading somewhere that in the entire time we have been able to produce antimatters using particle colliders we have created considerably less than a gram of the stuff . . . mars may be a ways off =/

  2. From NASA webpage: “10 milligrams of positrons needed for a human Mars mission”

  3. Brian Too

    Make sure that warp core ejection system has been designed and built first!

  4. I have serious reservations that NASA is capable of understanding
    anti-matter propulsion if this article is representative of their
    knowledge so I will help their effort.

    Here is my patent pending invention which uses antimatter created as needed using an ablation plate to give thrust.

    NASA comment ,”But if scientists could design, and engineers could build, a vessel to contain antimatter, it would go a long way towards solving our planet’s energy needs.”

    This comment I am sorry to say is wrong. NASA will not except anyone’s idea
    outside NASA as they still have the NOT INVENTED HERE MENTALLITY !

  5. megan

    LOL, something as important an invention actually using anti-matter propulstion and it’s being posted and paraded around online before getting a patent. Genius.

    My Trek Nerd problem with this article is that they don’t even understand the reason behind the use of anti-matter in the Trek-verse. It’s to provide the energy needed to create a singularity to ‘warp’ space so ‘attached matter can then travel from point A to B faster than ‘light’ does along ‘straight’ non-bended 3D space. It’s not to provide impulse power. That’s atleast how ‘The Science of Trek’ explained their imaginings.

  6. Dunc

    But if scientists could design, and engineers could build, a vessel to contain antimatter, it would go a long way towards solving our planet’s energy needs.

    Kinda depends on where you’re getting the antimatter from…

  7. One of the most idealistic interstellar rocket concepts is the antimatter rocket. Antimatter is matter that has an opposite charge and rotation then that of normal matter. Upon contact with normal matter, both masses annihilate and according to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, the annihilation of the masses leaves pure energy as an output. The use of antimatter and matter reactions could therefore be used to power an industrialized society, and send vehicles through space at amazing speeds due to the absolute efficient reaction. The use of antimatter as a fuel for propulsion has incredible potential, perhaps even to make interstellar travel a possibility, but so far harnessing this energy is a problem that has not been solved. However there are many equasions that could possibly be introduced in the future such as einstine’s thyeory,matter can be turned into energy (anti mater and mater E=MC2)

    = 0.111 x 300,000,000 x 300,000,000
    = 10,000,000,000,000,000 Joules
    This is an incredible amount of energy! A Joule is not a large unit of energy … one Joule is about the energy released when you drop a textbook to the floor. But the amount of energy in 30 grams of hydrogen atoms is equivalent to burning hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline!

    it doesnt take much antimatter and matter to achieve space travel however harnessing this energy is deffinately key so we dont go boom in a millianth of a second of brilliant bright light. keep up the good work

  8. A containment apparatus for containing a cloud of charged particles comprises a cylindrical vacuum chamber having a longitudinal axis. Within the vacuum chamber is a containment region. A magnetic field is aligned with the longitudinal axis of the vacuum chamber. The magnetic field is time invariant and uniform in strength over the containment region.
    An electric field is also aligned with the longitudinal axis of the vacuum chamber and the magnetic field. The electric field is time invariant, and forms a potential well over the containment region. One or more means are disposed around the cloud of particles for inducing a rotating electric field internal to the vacuum chamber. The rotating electric field imparts energy to the charged particles within the containment region and compress the cloud of particles.

    The means disposed around the outer surface of the vacuum chamber for inducing a rotating electric field are four or more segments forming a segmented ring, the segments conforming to the outer surface of the vacuum chamber. Each of the segments is energized by a separate alternating voltage. The sum of the voltages imposed on each segment establishes the rotating field.

    When four segments form a ring, the rotating field is obtained by a signal generator applying a sinusoidal signal phase delayed by 90, 180 and 270 degrees in sequence .

    Inertia dampening this is a very technical subject, However on a scientific level when dealing with enertia it is believed that a artificial gravety may cancel out inertia.

  9. michael thomas

    Megan, patent pending, but what good is an invention if it’s not developed.

    NASA won’t invest in because it wasn’t invented by them, so I guess it’s best to let whomever in the world that really wants to go into space develop it.

    The greater good of mankind needs to be served……… before greed.

    I will throw 100% support by anyone wanting to use the technology.


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