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Scientists Designing “Ion Shield” To Protect Astronauts From Solar Wind

Bubble chamber image of charged particles being deflected by a magnetic field (credit: CERN)
British scientists are working to build an invisible magnetic “Ion Shield” to be used during missions in space. A minature solar wind has been created in an Oxfordshire laboratory to simulate the highly charged particles emitted from the Sun and a magnetic “bubble” is being conceived to surround future spaceships. The magnetic field should have sufficient deflecting strength to redirect cancer-causing energetic particles away from future astronauts. Useful, especially during the proposed long-haul flights to Mars should the Sun begin launching flares at the wrong time…

The protection of astronauts in space from being bathed in damaging solar radiation is paramount to mission planners. Preventing exposure to high-energy particles is essential for the short-term success of the mission, and for the long-term health of the astronaut. Generally, humans in Earth orbit are protected from the ravages of the solar wind as they are within the protective blanket surrounding our planet. The protection is supplied by Earth’s magnetosphere, a powerful magnetic shield that deflects charged particles and channels them to the north and south poles, allowing life to thrive down here on the surface. The particles injected into the poles react with our atmosphere generating light, the Aurora.

So, the UK team are looking to create a small-scale “magnetosphere” of their own. If a spaceship can generate its own magnetic field, then perhaps the majority of solar particles can be deflected, creating a protective bubble the ship can travel in during solar storms. This may sound like science fiction, but the physics is sound, magnetic fields are used every day to deflect charged particles. Why not try to build a spaceship-sized magnetic particle deflector?

We now have actual measurements that show a ‘hole’ in the solar wind could be created in which a spacecraft could sit, affording some protection from ‘ion storms’, as they would call them on Star Trek.” – Dr Ruth Bamford, physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Chilton, Oxfordshire.

Firing a jet of charged particles into a strong magnetic field was attempted in the laboratory and the results were excellent. Observing the particles “hit” the leading edge of the field, a protected volume was made within the synthetic solar wind, arcing the particles around the void.

These are very early results however, and development on any large-scale system will take some work. Lots of energy would be required to create a spaceship-sized magnetic bubble, so there will be energy optimization issues to work into the design. Whether this exciting form of protection is possible or not, the pressure will be on to build a prototype before plans for the international Global Exploration Strategy to send man back to the Moon and beyond come into action. The US is now committed to a manned mission to Mars by 2020, so it would be useful to have the solar wind, high-energy particle problem solved by then.

Source: Guardian.co.uk

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chuck Lam January 28, 2008, 7:32 AM

    Can’t help wonder if any human anatomy research has been done on long term exposure to magnetic shielding.

  • ddk January 28, 2008, 1:36 AM

    A permanant magnet has a magnetic field and does not require any power. The flux lines of the magnet can even be bent and/or shaped by iron, etc.

  • Rev. January 28, 2008, 2:06 AM

    DDK:

    But what is the weight and size of magnets large enuf’ to create the required bubble for safety??

    It seems to me… the magnetic field driven by energy (from whatever source) should be constructed in such a way, so as, to be able to turn it on / off for use only during times of needed protection.

  • W. Keil January 28, 2008, 2:45 AM

    The idea is old, realisation steps are discussed in early papers: P. P. Saksonov, Protection against Radiation (Biological, Pharmacological, Chemical, Physical) inst. of Biomed. Problems, Moscow, N76-26840, and in ESA Journal 1988, Vol. 12 : h. Kröger, P. Labelle, computer Simulation of a Magnetic Shield in a Realistic Space Environment and other internal studies. Wishing the best for a successful project.

  • vidyardhi nanduri January 28, 2008, 4:37 AM

    Ref: Ion shield- Protection
    Sub: Welcome trend towards – flying Saucer concepts
    Right direction and guidance help a positive approach for effective protection.
    Be aware that this can be carried away

  • Peter K January 28, 2008, 10:59 AM

    I suppose if we can survive and thrive within Earth’s magnetic field, then we shouldn’t have too much trouble with temporary shields around our spacecraft. I assume they’d have the same proportional strength. The permanent magnet idea is great but as mentioned, can you imagine the weight? Besides, it would keep wiping all the computers’ memories!

  • Simon N January 28, 2008, 12:21 PM

    It might be possible to manufacture a material to replace the shuttle’s heat shielding with a material that is not only resistant to temperature but also highly conductive.

    That way an electric charge could be made to flow across the outer frame of the spacecraft, directing the magnetic field lines in any direction chosen.

    Superconduction would also be easier to achieve given the low temperature of space.

    Astrophysics undergrad.
    Sussex University.

  • Ron Evans January 28, 2008, 9:53 PM

    This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I was supposing a current carrying superconducting loop which could encircle the spacecraft (this would be a spacecraft that was intended to remain in space at all timesand never land). Since any long duration spacecraft should have the crew compartment (or at least a significant portion of it) spinning to counteract the the effects of long duration freefall, the superconducting loop could be around the outer shell. Also since there would likely be a similar effect to the Earth’s magnetic field where the charged particles would be directed in at the poles the protected area would be a torus … just the right shape for a spining crew module. I haven’t done the calculations, but this seems probable to me. I suppose the crew compartment and the computers within could be protected with a thin ferric shell that would direct the field lines through the shell instead of directly through the crew compartment.

  • HolyAvengerOne January 29, 2008, 5:22 AM

    Albeit now quite new, I’m rejoicing to know that they’re actually doing some serious research on this. It seems to me that any sort of high-speed/long-term space traveling will need some sort of energy shield-generation system and that’s a first step… if they can make it practical.

    Hmm also, just throwing this up in there but hmm, ion engine = strong electromagnetic field… anyone said something along those lines ?

  • Donald Bogard January 29, 2008, 1:45 PM

    The solar wind has an energy of about a kev per amu. It would not take a large magnetic field to deflect such particles. However, the skin of any spacecraft or spacesuit would stop such particles, so they are not really a danger. I think the authors of the article meant solar energetic particles, or solar flare particles, which have much greater energy. The question is how strong a magnetic field would be required to deflact a 100 kev particle, or even a 1 Mev or 10 Mev
    particle?

  • Eric February 22, 2008, 7:47 AM

    Does anyone think this could be a precurser to a far advanced technology that would resemble an actual shield against weapons? I think it might be feasible that if you put a strong enough magnetic field in front of or around a vehicle or craft that you can abruptly stop an oncoming missle or other projectile. The only problem that could rise, aside from getting to the point of creating the shield itself, would be protecting the crew(s) from the magnetic field. If I’m way off, please let me know. I’m just someone without any in depth knowledge of physics.

  • kroosing 2 '42' via '37' November 5, 2008, 9:55 AM
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