Vacuum to Antimatter-Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES) An Interstellar Rendezvous and Return Architecture

posted by Richard Obousy on July 16, 2012

**Article originally written for Discovery Space News by Richard Obousy**

While interstellar mission have been explored in the literature, one mission architecture has not received much attention, namely the interstellar rendezvous and return mission that could be accomplished on timescales comparable with a working scientist’s career.

Such a mission would involve an initial boost phase followed by a coasting phase to the target system. Next would be the deceleration and rendezvous phase, which would be followed by a period of scientific data gathering. Finally, there would be a second boost phase, aimed at returning the spacecraft back to the solar system, and subsequent coasting and deceleration phases upon return to our solar system. Such a mission would represent a precursor to a future manned interstellar mission; which in principle could safely return any astronauts back to Earth.

 Interstellar missions have been proposed as a priority for research into (1) the interstellar medium (2) studies of a target star (3) planetary science studies including moons and large asteroids, and (4) astrobiological and exobiological studies of any habitable planets which may exist.

 The primary challenges associated with any interstellar mission relate to the distances involved. Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is the furthest manmade object from Earth, and travels at 10.6 miles per second. Even traveling at this incredible speed, it would take just over 70,000 years to reach the closest star to our solar system. Recently, NASA began developing Solar Probe plus, which will study our own sun. Through a series of seven gravitational assists with the planet Venus, the probe will reach the extraordinary speed of 125 miles per second. This is a full seven times faster than Voyager 1, which would allow it to make a trip to another star (if that were its objective) in 6,450 years. While this would still be an incredible accomplishment, no propulsion technology currently in existence has the capability to fly to another solar system on timescales comparable to a human lifetime.


This challenge becomes more apparent if we consider one of the simplest equations that governs spaceflight; the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation. Using this equation we find that to obtain the necessary speeds for an interstellar mission, exhaust speeds within an order of magnitude of the speed of light are necessary, as well as large mass ratio’s and large mass flow rates. Because antimatter offers the highest possible energy density upon annihilating its matter counterpart, it is ideal for interstellar missions. In addition, the reaction occurs spontaneously and so does not require any complex reactor systems or bulky drivers to initiate the reaction.

 In-Situ Refueling: The VARIES Concept

One possibility for in-situ refueling that we introduce in this proposal is a quantum effect known as Schwinger pair production. At all energies probed by experiments to date, the universe is accurately described as a set of quantum fields. Each mode of the vacuum behaves like a simple harmonic oscillator, and one quantum mechanical property of these oscillators is that their ground state exhibits fluctuations as a consequence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The vacuum is thus not devoid of matter or energy as classical physics would have us believe, but is instead a rich arena of quantum activity. Not long after Dirac’s discovery that a relativistic description of electrons required the existence of positrons it was realized by Nobel Prize winning Physicist Julian Schwinger that that a strong enough electric field can create electron-positron pairs out of the vacuum of space itself. For a laser intensity greater than some critical value, pair production is generated via a ‘break-up’ of the vacuum polarization. While the electric field strength necessary to accomplish this is immense, to say the least, recent experimental advances have raised hope that lasers may soon achieve field intensities on the order of this very critical field intensity.

The VARIES Starship. Image courtesy Adrian Mann.



For the VARIES concept, a starship would accelerate to the target solar system and decelerate using it’s onboard supply of fuel. At the target system, the starship would assume a stable orbit close to the systems star. Vast solar panels, hundreds of square kilometers in area would unfurl, and capture energy from the star. This sunlight would be converted into laser energy which would then be used to create antimatter from the vacuum of space via the Schwinger pair production mechanism. Once a sufficient amount of antimatter is created and stored, the VARIES would then be adequately fueled to begin its return trip, presumably back to Earth, where it would then decelerate, allowing future interstellar explorers with a possible way to return to Earth.

One critical and unique component to the VARIES architecture is our proposal that proton-antiproton pair creation can be generated from the vacuum, given a sufficiently powerful electric field. Spontaneous particle creation from the vacuum by an external electric field has been applied to numerous problems in contemporary particle physics, including black hole quantum evaporation and electron-positron creation in the vicinity of charged black holes.

High intensity lasers produce particle antiparticle pairs from the vacuum. Image courtesy Adrian Mann.


While this research is at a very early stage in its development, a peer reviewed article was recently published outlining the physics of the idea.

Obousy, R.K., “Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System“, JBIS 64 No.11/12 pp 378-386 (2011).


Discovery Article can be found here.

Vacuum to Antimatter-Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES) An Interstellar Rendezvous and Return Architecture

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17 Responses to Vacuum to Antimatter-Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES) An Interstellar Rendezvous and Return Architecture

  1. JohnHunt says:

    It doesn’t make sense to me to have a return science mission as a precursor to a manned mission.

    The first one-way manned mission would be considerably less expensive than a round trip. If humans can survive or be created at the destination system then technology should be sufficiently advanced that they should be able to survive long-term at the target system. So from a cost standpoint, it would make sense to first send those people who wanted to go on a one-way mission. I don’t see any need for scientists to be sent back after they conducted their field studies. Again, it makes logical sense to select those scientists who also wanted to be one of those to start a new branch of humanity in the new system. Any scientific information could be analyzed at the target system and the information beamed back to Earth.

    Also, rapid prototypers could produce the technologies to produce equipment to conduct scientific analysis (i.e. samples don’t need to be sent back to Earth), to produce habitats (such as shielded greenhouses) and life support, and even the facilities to produce or capture anti-matter.

    • Richard Obousy says:

      Thanks for your comment John. The point behind VARIES is that it explores a possible architecture for a manned return trip. Whether future interstellar travelers will remain in the target system or not remains to be seen. The article is not intended to promote the idea that crews should, or should not return. It simply offers a possibility for the former scenario.

    • Max says:

      Who says it needs to be a “return” mission you’d need to refuel for? It would be advantageous for a probe to be able to refuel itself at a target star system so it could move on to exploring the next.

      As for a manned mission, if the target system proves for some reason to be uninhabitable, you don’t want to be stranded there do you? It would be useful to be able to refuel and move on to another target for human colonization without too much hassle or time spent.

      • admin says:

        Agreed! One possible architecture is the rendezvous and return, but I completely agree that a rendezvous mission, then a trip to another system is also a possibility. I did discuss both possibilities a few days ago when presenting this idea at the One Hundred Year Starship symposium in Houston.

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  4. mithril says:

    if you had a sufficiently powerful powerplant to run the field, could you use the vacuum-to-antimatter device to fuel a rocket directly?

    • admin says:

      Absolutely! However, the question here is, if you had an powerful powerplant onboard, would there be more energy efficient methods to propel a vehicle.

  5. Jack Ryder says:

    All starship projects assume that the current lifespan for humans remains the norm. There is a high probability that this lifespan will be expanded substancially. This will mean the 1000 year return voyage becomes a possibility.
    Of course, if an extanded lifespan becomes the norm we will have to expand into the universe. In that case let us hope that we are alone!

    • admin says:

      I don’t agree that all the projects assume that lifespans remain the same. It’s a well known proposal that lifespans may increase and discussed copiously in the literature. However, it doesn’t really add much to the conversation IMHO. What we know now is the current lifespan of a human being (give or take) so it seems a worthwhile approach to consider missions comparable with current
      human lifespans.

  6. kalish says:

    I am very interested by the schwinger effect, however I don’t see the point to use it here. The anti matter propulsion is effective cause it converts mass in electromagnetic radiation, and that electromagnetic radiation becomes very efficient at high velocity. (and very directive) First if you collect energy from the light of stars to create particles and the convert particles in light, isn’t it better to directly reorient the light of stars without using the antimatter? Second at high speed all the light comes from the front, then, catching it to release later is useless cause the momentum is proportional to the energy for light. Maybe it can be useful if you can deliver all the power in a shorter time, then you have greater accelerations, and while the maximum speed is the same, it last longer in the case of the anti matter storing.

  7. John Bensted says:

    Storing antimatter is problematic. Why not use this method of harvesting antimatter on-the-go? Harvest – accumulate (very temporary) – use. Research would be needed to find the most efficient way of harvesting the antimatter (read less energy to harvest than is produced by the harvested antimatter).

  8. william f collins says:

    I have often thought about the spread of humankind into interstellar space utilizing propulsion methods while still futuristic are at least possible and probable. Relatively slow but steady expansion throughout the galaxy – possibly one-way trips but not necessarily so. Thank you for your work.

  9. adam says:

    I imagine the sails to fragile to be deployed enroute. Interstellar dust would ravage them. As far as redirecting the sunlight without the antimatter reaction, i believe the interaction between the matter-antimatter reaction and the vessel is the force applied to push forward. The anihilation releases energy, but the “wind” as it were, i imagine to be a force that acts temporarily like both a wave and a particle. Seems to this leyman to be an interesting and creative proposal to solve an ever intriguing goal.

  10. Dan says:

    A return vehicle capability is critically important. Without it, I doubt any manned interstellar missions will ever be made. The reasons are political and economic – no one will pay the necessary trillions of dollars required unless there is at least a chance of an economic return. This has been true ever since the days of the earliest Viking voyages to North America.

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