Antimatter’s staggering energy potential always catches the eye, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. The problem is how to harness it. Eugen Sänger’s ‘photon rocket’ was an attempt to do just that, but the concept was flawed because when he was developing it early in the 1950s, the only form of antimatter known was the positron, the antimatter equivalent of the electron. The antiproton would not be confirmed until 1955. A Sänger photon rocket would rely on the annihilation of positrons and electrons, and therein lies a problem.
Sänger wanted to jack up his rocket’s exhaust velocity to the speed of light, creating a specific impulse of a mind-boggling 3 X 107 seconds. Specific impulse is a broad measure of engine efficiency, so that the higher the specific impulse, the more thrust for a given amount of propellant. Antimatter annihilation could create the exhaust velocity he needed by producing gamma rays, but positron/electron annihilation was essentially a gamma ray bomb, pumping out gamma rays in random directions.
Image: Austrian rocket scientist Eugen Sänger, whose early work on antimatter rockets identified the problems with positron/electron annihilation for propulsion.
What Sänger needed was thrust. His idea of an ‘electron gas’ to ...