The Problem With Antimatter Rockets

The distance to our neighboring star Alpha Centauri is roughly 4.3 lightyears or 25.6 trillion km. This is an enormous distance. It would take the Space Shuttle 165,000 years to cover this distance. That’s 6,600 generations of humans who’d know nothing but the darkness of space. Obviously, this is not an option. Do we have the technologies to get there within the lifespan of a person? Surprisingly, yes. The concept of antimatter propulsion might sound futuristic, but all the technologies necessary to build such a rocket exist. Today.

What exactly do you need to build a antimatter rocket? You need to produce antimatter, store antimatter (remember, if it comes in contact with regular matter it explodes, so putting it in a box is certainly not a possibility) and find a way to direct the annihilation products. Large particle accelerators such as CERN routinely produce antimatter (mostly anti-electrons and anti-protons). Penning-Traps, a sophisticated arrangement of electric and magnetic fields, can store charged antimatter. And magnetic nozzles, suitable for directing the products of proton / anti-proton annihilations, have already been used in several experiments. It’s all there.

So why are we not on the way to Alpha Centauri? We should be making sweet love with green female aliens, but instead we’re still banging our regular, non-green, non-alien women. What’s the hold-up? It would be expensive. Let me rephrase that. The costs would be blasphemous, downright insane, Charlie Manson style. Making one gram of antimatter costs around 62.5 trillion $, it’s by far the most expensive material on Earth. And you’d need tons of the stuff to get to Alpha Centauri. Bummer! And even if we’d all get a second job to pay for it, we still couldn’t manufacture sufficient amounts in the near future. Currently 1.5 nanograms of antimatter are being produced every year. Even if scientists managed to increase this rate by a factor of one million, it would take 1000 years to produce one measly gram. And we need tons of it! Argh. Reality be a harsh mistress …

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