Antimatter-Rocket Plan Fuels Hope for "Star Trek" Tech

Mark Anderson
for National Geographic News
May 4, 2006

Warp drives may be the stuff of science fiction, but another Star Trek staple appears to be edging toward science fact.

The energy source that enables the starship Enterprise to boldly go where no one has gone before has, according to one controversial new claim, moved much closer to reality.

A New Mexico company has just completed its initial studies of an antimatter-powered rocket that it hopes will someday take astronauts to Mars in 90 days or less. (Related interview: Mars expert on how to get there.)

As with Trek when it first aired in the 1960s, many critics doubt the ambitious new program will ever get off the ground.

The existence of antimatter was first predicted in 1928. It's said to be a mirror image of matter.

(See "Scientists Ponder Universe's Missing Antimatter.")

If a particle makes contact with its antiparticle, the two substances annihilate—they both vanish in a flurry of high-energy radiation known as gamma rays.

The electron, carrier of electricity, has an antimatter twin called the positron, or antielectron, which was discovered in 1932.

Sci-fi authors and screenwriters have since cashed in on the reflective, perplexing, and overpowering possibilities of this mystery substance.

Examples include the "Anti-Matter Man" episode of the 1960s TV series Lost in Space; the "positronic brains" of the cyborgs in Isaac Asimov's book I, Robot; and R.L. Forward's novel Martian Rainbow, in which antimatter rockets boost both a Mars mission and world domination.

But Forward was not the only visionary who saw antimatter as the ultimate form of rocket propulsion.

In the 1950s Austrian engineer Eugen Sänger first suggested using positron-electron annihilations to power spacecraft. But one of the chief problems that dogged his efforts was storage.

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