Going to Alpha Centauri? Try antimatter

An artist’s conception shows a positron rocket engine. (Positronics Research via NASA)
An artist’s conception shows a positron rocket engine. (Positronics Research via NASA)

Project Blue’s scientists still have to raise more than $800,000 over the next 15 days to reach their initial crowdfunding goal for a mission to observe Alpha Centauri’s alien planets, but they’re already thinking about how future explorers could get there.

It would take tens of thousands of years to make the 4.37-light-year trip using the best rocket propulsion that’s available today.

But a video created by Speculative Films, with input from Project Blue as well as Positron Dynamics, focuses on how antimatter propulsion could reduce that travel time to 40 years.

Antimatter drives have been a science-fiction standby since the original “Star Trek” TV series. They’ve also been the subject of real-world research. Almost two decades ago, researchers were talking with NASA about an antimatter-driven sail that could send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri in the 40-year time frame.

Positron Dynamics’ concept calls for cooling down a stream of positrons — the antimatter equivalent of electrons — and smashing them into a stream of electrons. Theoretically, that could produce enough oomph to accelerate a probe to more than one-tenth of the speed of light.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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