Bussard Ramjet


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The problem with all space travel is fuel.  As The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy says, "space is big,"  and trying to cover any sort of distance in a reasonable time is hampered by the fact that you have to drag along a heck of a lot of fuel; then you have to carry fuel to accelerate the fuel, and fuel to accelerate the fuel to accelerate the fuel, and the next thing you know you've got the planet Jupiter in tow.

Enter the Great White Hope of interstellar travel: the Bussard fusion ramjet.  This  was first proposed in a 1960 paper by Robert W. Bussard and popularised by Carl Sagan in the  Cosmos television series (1980).

The idea behind the Bussard ramjet is simple enough.  As it travels, the spaceship uses a gigantic magnetic scoop to collect hydrogen atoms.  These are fed into a fusion reactor, which converts the hydrogen into energy and propels the ship.  Since it gathers fuel as it goes along, the ship doesn't need any fuel payload and it can keep accelerating indefinitely until it reaches velocities close to the speed of light.  At such speeds, time slows down for the crew dramatically and it would be theoretically possible for the ship to reach the centre of the Galaxy in 20 years (crew time, though it still takes 30,000 years in real time) and could even circumnavigate the universe within the crew's lifetime.

That's in theory.  In practice, all is not so rosy in the garden.  First there is the obvious problem that even for a small ship you are talking about handling energy in quantities that scientists refer to in technical terms as "bat guano crazy."  Then there is the fact that the ship must be travelling at 6% of the speed of light to even begin working; and that sort of speed is already in the "What the Hell?" range.   Worst of all, there are all sorts of efficiency problems that start to get in the way.   Only 1% of the hydrogen atoms collected would be of an isotope useable as fuel.  That's a lot of chaff for very little seed, so acceleration may not get much more than 1/1000th of a gravity.  Then there is the size of the magnetic scoop, which needs to be upwards of 50,000 kilometers in diameter to collect the needed fuel and even in the vacuum of interstellar space that can produce drag like trying to go swimming underwater while pushing a washtub in front of you.  This has lead to some calculations that the ramjet might not be able to go faster than 16% of the speed of light.  Fast, but warp speed, it ain't. 

Of course, all this is a moot point, as the fusion engine at the heart of the ship hasn't even got to the back of the envelope stage of development and if it ever does prove worth building we're talking engineering on a planetary scale.  So, if you were planning on booking passage, I suggest that you opt for the Queen Mary 2 instead.  Regular service already started and a superb buffet.

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