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

by Ian O'Neill on January 27, 2008

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!

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