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On the graph discussed in this question, I was surprised to see "antimatter" listed as one of the engine types... with a disappointing performance equal to solid-core nuclear thermal rockets. This implies that an extremely small amount of antimatter is being annihilated in a solid core that then heats hydrogen propellant. This seems somewhat of a quixotic downgrade from the fabled antimatter photon rocket.

Is this engine type, which inevitably requires an extremely dangerous fuel and has extremely low TRL, considered to have any worthwhile benefit over a nuclear-fission-driven solid-core nuclear rocket? Is there some reason that antimatter would be easier to manage than fission fuel?

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  • $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen Please excuse me, I seem to have linked the wrong post -- one sec. $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Mar 28 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ Much better. Now I see what you're asking about. You'll have to ask NASA what they mean by that image and the source for that low specific impulse. You'll also have to ask NASA why they took that picture down. Good luck with those questions! An archived link of the source of the image is web.archive.org/web/20090402060736/http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/… . $\endgroup$ Mar 28 at 10:04

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To make it clear what is being discussed is the blob labeled "Nuclear, antimatter, laser (H2)" in the graph below. The blob in question has a specific impulse of 800 to 1000 seconds and a thrust ranging from a bit more than one newton to beyond a kilonewton.

Graph of the thrust versus specific impulse capabilities of various types of propulsion systems with thrust on the horizontal axis and specific impulse on the vertical axis

The blob in question is not depicting a solid core antimatter engine or a photon rocket. A photon rocket has a specific impulse of about 30 million seconds (speed of light / g0). A solid core antimatter engine that emits pions at about 1/3 of the speed of light would have a specific impulse of about 10 million seconds. This is of course purely theoretical (i.e., pure science fiction).

The graph appears to be depicting an engine that uses fusion, fission, lasers, or even matter-antimatter annihilation to heat hydrogen to a very high temperature and then emit that very hot hydrogen as the propellant. This will have a specific impulse in the 800 to 1000 second range depicted in the graph. There's only so far that a thermal rocket can go with regard to heating without having key parts of the rocket melt. Per the US Office of Nuclear Energy, the initial target for the specific impulse from a thermal nuclear rocket is about 900 seconds.

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    $\begingroup$ The downvote is for ... what? The graph to which the OP linked clearly shows a specific impulse for "nuclear, antimatter, laser ($\text{H}_2$)" as being in the 800 to 1000 second range. This specific impulse clearly is not for solid core antimatter rockets, which would, at least in theory, have a specific impulse of about ten million seconds. The 800 to 1000 second range is in line with the specific impulse expected from thermal nuclear rocket engines. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ No idea on the downvote, this is a valid answer. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Mar 29 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen though I'm not the downvoter, you seem to be confusing "beam core" with "solid core". The former, probably impractical to build, would have multi-million-second Isp and would clearly be far too hot to have anything solid existing in their engine core. There are NASA papers referring to solid core antimatter rockets that do indeed have ~1000 second Isps. $\endgroup$ Mar 29 at 19:05
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TL;DR: solid core antimatter rockets basically are the same as solid-core nuclear thermal rockets, which is why they have pretty similar performance figures.


Antiproton-driven NERVA-dervied rocket

Here's a diagram from Antimatter propulsion, status and prospects from waaay back in 1986.

Solid Core Thermal Rocket (SCTR). The SCTR would utilize the antiprotons by stopping all of the annihilation products In a solid core of high-melting-temperature material such as tungsten. The core is honeycombed to allow the heat transfer to the propellent.

Much like the solid core nuclear thermal rocket, this rocket design is limited by the material limits of the heat exchanger and rocket nozzle and so on... if it gets too hot, it melts, and the whole lot shoots out of the back in an embarrassing mess. This means that such a rocket is going to have almost the same operating limits as a solid core NTR, including similar thrust and Isp values. Hence its mention in the 1000 seconds, high-thrust section. I'm not sure why other kinds of antimatter propulsion weren't considered, but there you go.

Is this engine type, which inevitably requires an extremely dangerous fuel and has extremely low TRL, considered to have any worthwhile benefit over a nuclear-fission-driven solid-core nuclear rocket? Is there some reason that antimatter would be easier to manage than fission fuel?

With regards to the danger of the system, it was anticipated that a typical mission for such a rocket would use somewhere between a few tens and a few hundred milligrams of antiprotons, giving an equivalent yield to maybe 20kT max. For comparison that's an order of magnitude worse than the N1 explosion. At least there would be basically no fallout, if it happened on the ground.

Assuming that isn't an immediate deal breaker though, consider the following:

  • No fallout from accidents (well, there'd be some fission products from split tungsten nuclei, but vastly less than with regular fission, and no neutron activation products which you'll get from fission and most fusion rockets).
  • No radioactive exhaust (though an NTR probably shouldn't have this either, if everything is working nicely).
  • You could even do staging with these things, without having to deal with a load of massive expensive hot radioactive fuel rods falling back to Earth.
  • Core erosion rates will be pretty low (you don't want it to melt) which makes the engine more easily re-useable without the need for decontamination or reprocessing.
  • The engine isn't going to be particularly radioactive after use, making it safer to work around, and has almost no decay heat removing additional post-burn cooling hassles.
  • No need for used fuel assembly reprocessing facilities.
  • No need for spent reactor core storage locations.

That's quite a nice feature list even compared to fusion rockets, given issues like neutron activation.

Additionally,

  • Its efficiency is higher than other antimatter rocket designs, because it captures more of the annihilation products in the engine core.

The big problem, to my mind at least, is that unless you have an economical source of antimatter and mature antimatter storage technology, it will just be pointlessly expensive to operate. Maybe the authors of the paper I linked above, and the labellers of your diagram, had unreasonably optimistic expectations of future antimatter production?

Consider that if you've got even as little as microgram levels of antimatter handy the possibilities of things like Antimatter Catalyzed Microfission or other similar tricks (you can probably use small quantities of antimatter to heat up fusion fuels nicely too) that seem far cheaper and more straightforward and might even give you an awful lot more Isp for your buck than any purely antimatter fuelled drive that doesn't use ridiculous amounts of the stuff.

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