Engineers Propose Interstellar Spacecraft Fueled by Lasers

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Engineers Propose Interstellar Spacecraft Fueled by Lasers

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Icarus Interstellar wants to use lasers to create antimatter fuel out of the vacuum of space.

Although it's a beautiful concept, the reality of interstellar space travel is one that features an enormous amount of practical hurdles. One of the biggest problems presented by the "assuming we don't invent faster-than-light travel soon" school of far-flung dreams is the issue of fuel; namely, how do you supply a craft with sufficient fuel for a massive journey without weighing it down too much? Now, in a neat twist, a nonprofit interstellar research foundation has brought us closer to solving that problem: Icarus Interstellar has drawn up a working theory for an interstellar spacecraft, known as "The Vacuum to Antimatter-Rocket Interstellar Explorer System" (VARIES), that is powered by a laser that generates antimatter fuel out of the vacuum of space.

Designing a workable antimatter spacecraft has long been a goal of scientists with interstellar ambitions (NASA started work on a similar system back in 2006). What makes Icarus Interstellar's idea special is that while all previous antimatter engine theories have required that the spacecraft carry a small amount of on-board fuel to kickstart the antimatter creation, the VARIES theory allows for a drastic reduction in traditional fuel use.

Here's how it works: In order to generate get energy from antimatter, you must first get yourself some antimatter. The Icarus team proposes doing this by using an incredibly powerful laser to agitate the vacuum into creating positron-electron pairs (energy is created when the antimatter positron collides with the electron, releasing a nice big dose of radiation) in a specific "quantum field," basing the idea on Nobel Prize-winner Julian Schwinger's work on quantum electrodynamics.

Armed with vast solar panels, a VARIES craft would get to a nearby star using hard, modern space-fuels. Once there, it would unfurl its panels and use them to create energy to power its high-powered laser, which would in turn generate the positron-electron pairs needed for the journey home. If it works, the craft would store up enough of this energy to allow it to make it home with its sails re-furled. Additionally, storing antimatter is a fairly tricky business; more information on how the team plans to deal with that, and other physics-based conundrums associated with the project, can be found at Icarus Interstellar's peer-reviewed articles page.

Still with me? Glad to hear it. The advantages of an antimatter-powered spacecraft are myriad, with the first big plus being that it weighs a lot less than a craft that needs to carry its fuel (chemical, nuclear, or what have you) on board. Above all else, this makes it much cheaper to launch, in addition to freeing up onboard space otherwise occupied by fuel supplies. Provided its solar panels can be folded up and re-used, there also exists the possibility that a craft of this kind could hop from star to star, refueling itself every time it gets close enough to a new one.

At the moment, the VARIES craft-idea is still very much in development. Happily, the physics behind it seems solid enough to carry the project forward. The number of interstellar hurdles VARIES can jump remains to be seen; but for the moment, it's pleasing to see practical progress towards beating Voyager's record.

Source: Discovery.com

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All I can think of is Sins of a Solar Empire where Antimatter was basically mana for spaceships. Still nice to see science moving forward.

When I read "Powered by lasers", the James Bond theme started to play in my head.

Good thing weight means almost nothing in space, you need a ton of power to try an generate a means of FTL travel. While this system sounds innovative, it doesn't sound like it would generate enough power, unless it was a massive system.

Why are things so cool? D:

Ok, so we've got space, antimatter and lasers. Maybe they should call that guy who is attaching lasers to sharks.

Add sharks into the equation and they will have officially created the most awesome thing ever.

Lets work out the Cryo-stasis first.

008Zulu:
When I read "Powered by lasers", the James Bond theme started to play in my head.

Yeah and last time something called Icarus was put into space by a British person, It didn't work out well for anyone.

I have to admit that when I hear someone naming a space craft "Icarus" and what's more that they plan to power it by having it get close to a sun/star I can't help but think this is a joke. Naming a solar space program off of a guy who pretty much died due to his own arrogance and melting the wax in his wings by getting too close to the sun seems pretty stupid to me. Almost like courting disaster. That's why I have a hard time thinking it has to be a joke.

If they are serious, that's great, I hope they succeed, but jeez... change the name.

It's sort of like coming up with a new gas powered space travel concept and calling it "Project Hindenberg" or an ice powered space craft called "The Titanic".

With the name Icarus, they might as well just make the first ship spawned by the program the "USS Kill Beast Buffet" (with a dedication to Yahtzee) and then everyone can act surprised when homicidal aliens get on born and devour everyone. :)

Yup, and it works because light has mass! Don't ask me why, but it derives from E=MC2. Or it would, if they wanted to propel it by point a laser at it, but I skimmed A LOT.

And here I was expecting them to be pulling some "Energy from nothing" trick. Nope, take the energy from a star, then use antimatter like a battery. That... could work.

It would solve a heck of a lot of other problems too. If you can do [Energy -> Antimatter & Matter] easily, then you have an easy way to transport energy. And that would, frankly, solve a fairly major part of the energy crisis. Wires are just so damn inefficient!

Rainboq:
Yup, and it works because light has mass! Don't ask me why, but it derives from E=MC2. Or it would, if they wanted to propel it by point a laser at it, but I skimmed A LOT.

No, sorry, E=MC2 is actually a simplification. There should be another term in there concerning momentum (irrelevant for stationary objects) and a factor from relativity (also irrelevant for stationary objects). E=MC2 works fine for an atom bomb, but with photons you need a different formula since they have momentum but no mass.

project icarus?

sounds like something cerberus would be cooking up...

*opens link*

there is a project bifrost?!?!

I'm keeping my eye on you, Icarus

Is calling a project about space flight after a myth where a person flew to high, burned up from the sun, and died horribly really good idea?

It would be like calling a ship the Titanic 2, or have your political nichname be "the Watergater."

Not G. Ivingname:
Is calling a project about space flight after a myth where a person flew to high, burned up from the sun, and died horribly really good idea?

It would be like calling a ship the Titanic 2, or have your political nichname be "the Watergater."

Yeah, Icarus is not a good name to go by. I'm afraid your ship will find a dark planet on the edge of the galaxy called Z'ha'dum...

Glad to see I'm not the only one slightly perturbed by the project's designated name - I'll grant the relevant star/flight references provide inspiration on a superficial level, but surely those in charge are acquainted with the word 'hubris', and the meaning behind the myth?

Not G. Ivingname:
Is calling a project about space flight after a myth where a person flew to high, burned up from the sun, and died horribly really good idea?

It would be like calling a ship the Titanic 2, or have your political nichname be "the Watergater."

Like how in Futurama there was the Land Titanic just to tempt fate and naturally it sank below the streets of New New York. Also the Space Titanic tragically lost to a black hole due to pilot error.

OT: Sadly with NASA's budget cuts this is a long long way off. If only NASA had more money.

Therumancer:
I have to admit that when I hear someone naming a space craft "Icarus" and what's more that they plan to power it by having it get close to a sun/star I can't help but think this is a joke. Naming a solar space program off of a guy who pretty much died due to his own arrogance and melting the wax in his wings by getting too close to the sun seems pretty stupid to me. Almost like courting disaster. That's why I have a hard time thinking it has to be a joke.

You know... I know the story of Icarus, and I read that the craft would essentially "spread its wings and get close to the sun" and still I didn't put two and two together.

Concurred sir... concurred.

I'm putting this one up on the shelf next to the Infinity project.

FalloutJack:

Not G. Ivingname:
Is calling a project about space flight after a myth where a person flew to high, burned up from the sun, and died horribly really good idea?

It would be like calling a ship the Titanic 2, or have your political nichname be "the Watergater."

Yeah, Icarus is not a good name to go by. I'm afraid your ship will find a dark planet on the edge of the galaxy called Z'ha'dum...

Oh god damnit! Now I have to watch all the Babylon 5 seasons again.

... not that I actually mind all that much. Best sci-fi series ever.

Note: the journals they published in, while peer reviewed, are certainly not the top journals in the field, and their main journal, JBIS, is well known for giving the fringe speculation air time.

That being said, I do love me some interstellar travel, and if someone thinks they can do it with by essentially condensing photons into matter/antimatter particle pairs, go for it mang.

I love the name. If you are going to redefine human limitations what could be more appropriate than brazen defiance for the gods themselves? Up anchor and fate be damned!

Rainboq:
Don't ask me why

It's obvious why.
Science is a troll.
It has been from the start.

Rooster Cogburn:
I love the name. If you are going to redefine human limitations what could be more appropriate than brazen defiance for the gods themselves? Up anchor and fate be damned!

Because you'd want a new technology to carry a name that inspires confidence.

As I said before, on some levels I'm not entirely convinced this isn't a very high end attempt at intellectual trolling. Especially seeing as there seems to have been less coverage than I would expect, even as a hypothetical thing, if it was actually for real.

A solar powered ship that spreads it's wings/panels near the sun, named after a fool who did that and died, sounds like a joke by a bunch of engineers, with eveeything phrased just seriously enough to make it sound like it could be real.

But then again, we do live in the same world where "Janus Mutal Funds" has advertised on TV and apparently done quite well for itself. Who better to trust with handling your hard earned money than a company named after a two faced god of lies. If that one becomes a major scandal in a few years for robbing people of billions it's going to be absolutly hilarious since it's not like the name didn't scream what was going to happen or anything. I thought that name/company had to be a joke too, until I realized it wasn't.... so Icarus... well, I suppose.

oooooohhh I got a feelin'! I got a good feelin'!
I got a feelin' this could be something my grandchildren will have to memorize in fourth grade history!

Y'know, sometimes its just an ordinary day, and then its SPACE YEAR 2012 BABY!

Thanks for keeping things in perspective Captcha:
Drink Milk

TrilbyWill:
"Science is a troll.
It has been from the start."

Said the man sitting at the computer.

TIMESWORDSMAN:

TrilbyWill:
"Science is a troll.
It has been from the start."

Said the man sitting at the computer.

Your point being?

TrilbyWill:

TIMESWORDSMAN:

TrilbyWill:
"Science is a troll.
It has been from the start."

Said the man sitting at the computer.

Your point being?

Science rules.

chimpzy:
Ok, so we've got space, antimatter and lasers. Maybe they should call that guy who is attaching lasers to sharks.

Add sharks into the equation and they will have officially created the most awesome thing ever.

It's just what engineers do.
Who also wouldn't want to attach a laser powered anti-matter engine to a spaceship that is going so fast that reality warps around it?

Would someone please stop adding Greek myth/legends to their titles? It's not funny nor is it smart. Don't mean to moan but this is seriously getting old.

Does this mean we can have nice things after all?

Well, forgetting the positronium portion for a second and keeping things within the atmosphere:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_9ac-w4DW8

Why would you name it Icarus? That like asking for something to go terribly wrong!

Therumancer:

Rooster Cogburn:
I love the name. If you are going to redefine human limitations what could be more appropriate than brazen defiance for the gods themselves? Up anchor and fate be damned!

Because you'd want a new technology to carry a name that inspires confidence.

As I said before, on some levels I'm not entirely convinced this isn't a very high end attempt at intellectual trolling. Especially seeing as there seems to have been less coverage than I would expect, even as a hypothetical thing, if it was actually for real.

A solar powered ship that spreads it's wings/panels near the sun, named after a fool who did that and died, sounds like a joke by a bunch of engineers, with eveeything phrased just seriously enough to make it sound like it could be real.

But then again, we do live in the same world where "Janus Mutal Funds" has advertised on TV and apparently done quite well for itself. Who better to trust with handling your hard earned money than a company named after a two faced god of lies. If that one becomes a major scandal in a few years for robbing people of billions it's going to be absolutly hilarious since it's not like the name didn't scream what was going to happen or anything. I thought that name/company had to be a joke too, until I realized it wasn't.... so Icarus... well, I suppose.

One way to inspire confidence is balls-out audacity. I think calling an experimental spacecraft Icarus is about as confident as you can get. Whether that will inspire confidence in anyone beside me, I don't know. I understand calling it Icarus is tempting fate, that's why I like it. The story of Icarus is about man being punished for going beyond his limitations. Knowing that and calling it Icarus to me says 'fuck limitations' and 'come what may'. It's perfectly and appropriately audacious! You could call it Icarus' Revenge but that doesn't sound as good.

Did everybody miss the important missing piece?
Quantum pair pops into existence then nearly immediately self annihilates. So ...
How the hell are they hoping to stop that and just pluck the positron away? Magic?

Nothing in your article or linked Discovery piece has any mention of the minor issue this poses. Namely, that you would just heat up some vacuum this way.

This theory has more holes in it than most I have ever seen so far. Keep in mind that if you could laser vacuum to create positrons and keep them, we would be doing so in CERN. But I hear its much harder than that. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimater#Artificial_production

Why do I get the feeling that somewhere in BIS a scientist is face palming and going 'Why does Owen keep going on about those damn lasers.'

PingoBlack:
Did everybody miss the important missing piece?
Quantum pair pops into existence then nearly immediately self annihilates. So ...
How the hell are they hoping to stop that and just pluck the positron away? Magic?

Nothing in your article or linked Discovery piece has any mention of the minor issue this poses. Namely, that you would just heat up some vacuum this way.

This theory has more holes in it than most I have ever seen so far. Keep in mind that if you could laser vacuum to create positrons and keep them, we would be doing so in CERN. But I hear its much harder than that. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimater#Artificial_production

I think most of us just don't know any better. But hey! That's why I troll through comments to find people disgusted with our ignorance who endeavor to enlighten us. :D *goes to link*

Therumancer:
snip

You seem to get awfully worked up over names. I don't think what a thing is called has much influence over how well the physics behind it works. It seems weird to me how much you're focusing on that. Your language conveys a picture of a person sitting at his keyboard shaking with rage at their choice of name.

OT: Very cool; the weight of fuel is a seriously annoying problem in space travel. Even if this doesn't work, I think it's definitely a step in the right direction.

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