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    Could Earth’s ring of antimatter power spacecraft?


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    Could Earth’s ring of antimatter power spacecraft?

    Post  mudra on Thu Sep 26, 2013 1:33 pm

    Could Earth’s ring of antimatter power spacecraft?


    A belt of antimatter has been discovered circling the Earth, which in future could be used to fuel voyages that race at breakneck speeds to other planets in the Solar System.

    Antimatter has properties that are opposite those of normal matter – for example the positive charge on a proton is negative in an antiproton. When antimatter and normal matter come into contact, they annihilate spectacularly, releasing energy. The Italian-run PAMELA (Payload Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light Nuclei Astrophysics) satellite, launched in 2006, has found thousands of times more antiprotons than expected in a region of the innermost Van Allen radiation belt called the South Atlantic Anomaly. The anomaly appears to be a concentrated region of a much larger antimatter belt, and is the point at which the innermost radiation belt is nearest the Earth’s surface (an altitude of about 500 kilometres) and Earth’s magnetic field lines, which confine the belts, are at their weakest.

    James Bickford, the senior member of the technical staff at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, has calculated that Earth’s antimatter belt contains 160 nanograms of antiprotons. This in itself doesn’t sound much – pure annihilation of this antimatter would produce just ten kilowatt-hours of energy – but it dwarfs the amount of antimatter that we can create in particle accelerators on Earth. (As an example, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, USA, would take an entire year, running up costs of millions of dollars, to create just one nanogram of antiprotons if the lab was used exclusively for that purpose.)

    The antiprotons are produced via Earth’s interaction with incoming cosmic rays from beyond the Solar System. Cosmic rays are charged particles moving at close to the speed of light, ejected from phenomena such as supernovae and their remnants. When they encounter Earth’s atmosphere they collide with atmospheric molecules and decay via pair production into antiprotons and antineutrons. Because of their charge, the antiprotons are trapped on the magnetic field lines in which they form; those that form deeper into the atmosphere quickly annihilate with a particle of normal matter. However, antineutrons with no charge can escape back into space where they decay into antiprotons and become trapped in Earth’s magnetic field at much greater altitudes, where they can survive for years.

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