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What is antimatter propulsion?

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Theoretically, antimatter propulsion would drive a spacecraft using energy from matter and anti-matter annihilation. When anti-matter and matter collide, the resulting explosion annihilates both and discharges pure radiation. Because this annihilation would convert 100 percent of mass into energy, it only requires a fraction of the material necessary for a chemically powered rocket.

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Antimatter propulsion remains a theory, but there are efforts underway to build a practical model. Antimatter annihilation provided further confirmation of Einstein’s theory that mass is equal to energy, and its efficiency quickly became a staple of science fiction writers and futurists envisioning space travel. An antimatter rocket cannot travel faster than light, so “warp speed” remains a fiction. Antimatter propulsion also has nasty side effects, such as high-energy gamma-ray production that can kill humans without proper shielding. Cost remains the biggest issue. Since antimatter makes up a tiny fraction of the universe’s matter, producing it requires tremendous amounts of energy, and containing it requires special electric fields and magnetic storage.

Theoretical physicists predicted antimatter in 1928 and observed it in 1932 while studying cosmic rays. Antimatter production in sufficient quantities for detailed study wasn’t practical until the 1980s when larger particle accelerators became available. As physicists gained experience with antimatter, other studies, including exploring its use for rocket power, started taking shape. Further advances with particle accelerators suggest practical antimatter propulsion may not be fictional. NASA funds the study of these systems and the field attracts many researchers who see antimatter propulsion as key to solar system travel in the near future.

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