Physicists Gerald Jackson and Steven Howe want to develop an engine that will propel spacecraft at 40 percent the speed of light, and they’re relying on Kickstarter to make it happen.
The duo behind Chicago's HBar Technologies (the slogan of which is “Making Antimatter Matter") plan to set a Kickstarter goal of $200,000, which seems like a reasonable price for bringing science fiction to reality. However, that $200,000 only covers the funding of proof of concept — a device that would measure the output of the antimatter engine. Building the real antimatter-fueled probe would take an estimated $100 million. However, if they prove their engine could be a reality, Jackson and Howe predict that heavy hitters like NASA would foot the rest of the bill.
Antimatter propulsion will sound familiar to any "Star Trek" fans out there. In fact, the fictional USS Enterprise’s warp drive was fueled by the warp core, a matter-antimatter chamber. Hypothetically, Jackson and Howe's spacecraft is a more realistic version of this, but only if they can harness the power of antimatter.
Jackson and Howe aren’t operating entirely on speculation. They are building on years and years of research by others, and a report from the 2003 Particle Accelerator Conference (pdf) reveals that they’ve refined the plans for a space probe. In theory, it could work and change space exploration forever. Scientists have been researching antimatter propulsion for years, but Jackson and Howe are the first to crowdfund the endeavor.
Popular Science explains how Jackson and Howe’s antimatter-fueled probe would function: “The design would use antimatter to induce a fission reaction. During this reaction, uranium would split into two 'daughter' byproducts. One of the daughters flies forward, striking into a sail and propelling it forward, similar to how the wind pushes a sailboat. The other daughter particle would shoot out the back of the spacecraft, creating another source of thrust.”
Aside from the enormous cost of Jackson and Howe’s project, there are logistical and safety concerns that could prevent their success. Antimatter, which is just like regular matter except is has an opposite charge, is extremely volatile. It destroys any particle of matter it comes into contact with, creating the powerful release of energy that Jackson and Howe want to use to propel a craft into deep space. The release of energy is also what makes the stuff so dangerous. Jackson and Howe’s report states that they’d need 17 grams of it to make their engine work. Also, antimatter is hard to contain, since it destroys every particle of matter it touches. In short, you have to contain it very carefully.
Aside from those challenges, there's the problem that antimatter is hard to come by; only supercolliders like CERN and Jackson’s former employer Fermilab are capable of creating it. It’s also expensive to make. Symmetry Magazine, a publication dedicated to particle physics, explains, “The problem lies in the efficiency and cost of antimatter production and storage. Making 1 gram of antimatter would require approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and cost over a million billion dollars.”
A $200,000 Kickstarter goal (and even $100 million in additional funding) is barely a drop in that expensive bucket.
However, if antimatter production becomes more efficient and therefore more affordable, dreams for an antimatter propulsion engine could become a reality. If being a part of this experiment appeals to you, watch out for the Kickstarter campaign when it launches later this month.