Air Force Tinkers with 'Star-Trekking' Spaceship Engine


The Heart of the Antimatter
by Tech. Sgt. Pat McKenna

If Maj. David Lojewski has his way, Air Force pilots of the future will be streaking through interstellar space and saying, "Set course for Alpha Centauri, maximum warp" without snickering or doing that Vulcan "peace sign" that Spock does with his fingers.

Lojewski, a self-confessed "Star Trek" buff, is turning science fiction into science fact in his lab at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. He and the team at the Air Force Research Lab's high-power systems branch will aid Penn State and NASA in experiments that could lead to a matter/anti matter engine, similar to the "warp drive" in the Starship Enterprise.

"This is real E=MC2 stuff," said Lojewski, the Air Force's only officer who holds a Ph.D. in pulsed power. "If this works, we could get pure energy. This could be the cleanest fuel ever, evolving into a very cheap resource. It's got all sorts of potential. I see a lot of parallels to the Manhattan Project, when nuclear fission was still just theory."

The experiments, which are slated for the year 2000, will attempt to measure the energy produced when antimatter and matter combine. Antimatter is the mirror image of matter, but their subatomic particles have opposite electrical charges. For instance, an electron is negative, but an antielectron (called a positron) is positive. When the two collide, they annihilate each other, causing a powerful burst of energy.

"Antimatter/matter annihilation has tremendous energy potential, far greater than the energy created from nuclear fission alone," said Dr. Gerald Smith, a Penn State physics professor and a project leader. "There's a real, promised payoff. I see this becoming a useful energy source, serving mankind down the road. Antimatter is no longer just the stuff of science fiction and movies."

Antimatter kindled NASA's interest, because of its potential to propel a manned craft into deep space. Chemical rockets would need too much bulky fuel to make it to the edge of our solar system. Smith's proposed AIM-Star (Antimatter-Initiated Microfusion Starcraft), however, will burn only a microgram of antimatter a year, much more efficient than the fictional Starship Enterprise, which Smith said used a "whole" gram per second. What a gas hog! No word yet, though, on how it performs in the city.

Smith said his AIM-Star could get a manned mission to Mars and back in four months, including a 30-day stay on the red planet. But his real goal is to send a probe out past Pluto, more than 10 astronomical units from Earth, out of our solar system and into interstellar space by the year 2050.

"We could learn so much from sampling and measuring the primordial elements of the big bang," the scientist said of one theory that the universe was created by a violent explosion of matter 20 billion years ago. "All we need is the engine to get there."

The hybrid engine, however, won't depend solely on antimatter. Antimatter is only a catalyst to spark multiple, nonstop nuclear fission and fusion explosions, like that of an H-bomb detonating, that will blast the starship through space.

The tests the Air Force will help conduct, however, won't use nuclear material. Instead, the service is employing Kirtland's Shiva Star, a machine which simulates the conditions of a nuclear explosion through the use of pulsed power -- a lightning bolt strike of energy generated by a bank of 864 capacitors that can gin up 10 million amps.

During the Cold War, the service "shot" Shiva to develop the technology to simulate the effects of a nuclear weapons explosion -- high levels of X-rays and electromagnetic pulses. With this research, the Air Force developed operational X-ray simulators, like "Decade" at Arnold AFB, Tenn., which will be used to test the effects of radiation on satellites and other electronics.

When Shiva was born in 1975, it had four arms and adopted the name of the multi-limbed Hindu god known as the "destroyer of worlds." Since then, it has gained two more arms (the machine, that is) and has 10 times the energy storage.

"Normally, pulse power is one of those fields where you don't get to see anything or get any feedback. All you hear is a 'click' and all you see are traces on an oscilloscope. It's pretty anticlimactic," the major said. "But not with Shiva. It's one of the few machines that gives you a sensory experience. When we fire it, Shiva sounds like a lightning bolt -- KABOOM! -- and the whole building shakes. It's great!"

During the early 1980s, the lab conducted "Star Wars" research, developing technology for the Strategic Defense Initiative. The service used the Shiva Star to test a rail-gun concept, accelerating small objects 10 to 15 times faster than a bullet. Scientists proposed sending a battery of these rail guns into space to defend against incoming enemy warheads.

After the Cold War, the lab tinkered with a possible "plasma gun" -- a weapon that fired a compact coil of pure energy -- a sort of invisible smoke ring of electricity. Scientists nicknamed them "the donuts of death," but, in the end, the project was scrapped because the rings dissipated too quickly.

Since that research ended in 1996, Shiva has remained largely idle, fired infrequently and then only at a fraction of its capacity. At full blast, a shot from Shiva is equal to five pounds of TNT exploding. Says Lojewski: "I've been told that if you stand out here during a shot that it will kill you instantly, but nobody has volunteered yet to find out if that's really true. The electromagnetic pulses will scramble the nerve signals from your brain and heart."

When Smith conducts his antimatter experiments, Shiva will be back online and firing at full strength. Although antimatter has never been deposited on a "compressed target," Lojewski said there's no need to worry about safety.

Easy for him to say, but what about the "space-time continuum," I asked?

With a befuddled look, he answered "What?"

Exactly. All I can say is avoid Albuquerque in the year 2000 or you might wind up in an alternate dimension where the "Borgs" have mastered the universe.

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