Ion Shield for Interplanetary Spaceships Now a Reality

by Ian O'Neill on November 4, 2008

Bubble chamber image of charged particles being deflected by a magnetic field (CERN)

Bubble chamber image of charged particles being deflected by a magnetic field (CERN)

British scientists invent “mini-magnetosphere” to protect astronauts during solar storms.

Space travel during a solar storm just became a little less risky. UK scientists working at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford and the universities of York and Strathclyde have tested a “mini-magnetosphere” enveloping a model spacecraft in the lab. It turns out that their prototype offers almost total protection against high energy solar particles. By mimicking the natural protective environment of the Earth, the researchers have scaled the protective magnetic bubble down into an energy efficient, yet powerful deflector shield.

This astounding achievement is a big step toward protecting sensitive electronics and the delicate human body against the radioactive effects of manned missions between the planets. It may sound like science fiction, but future astronauts may well shout the order to “RAISE SHIELDS!” if the Sun flares up during a 36 million mile journey to Mars…

A mission to Mars will benefit from a mini-magnetosphere (NASA)

A mission to Mars will benefit from a mini-magnetosphere (NASA)

On writing “Scientists Designing ‘Ion Shield’ To Protect Astronauts From Solar Wind” way back in January, I was a little dubious as to whether the preliminary results could be replicated on a full-scale spaceship. At the time, Dr Ruth Bamford (the lead researcher from Rutherford Appleton) had created a mini version of a magnetic shield that acted as a “bubble” in a stream of ions. As ions were charged, they could be deflected by a magnetic field, so the field acts as a barrier to deflect the paths of these ions around the void encapsulated by the magnetic field. All that had to be done was to scale the idea up a notch or two and then place a spaceship in the middle of the protected void. Solved!

Not so fast. The biggest drawback I could see back in January was the large amount of energy that would be required to power the system. After all, to generate a stable, spaceship-sized mini-magnetosphere would need a vast quantity of electricity (and be very bulky), or it would need to be highly efficient (and compact). As this is space travel we’re talking about, the scientists would need to look into the latter. The mini-magnetosphere would need to be a highly efficient device.

The USS Enterprise has many uses for its deflector shields, including repelling the Borg (Paramount Pictures)

The USS Enterprise has many uses for its deflector shields, including repelling the Borg (Paramount Pictures)

Eleven months later and it looks like the British team have found their answer. In results just published in the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, they have devised a system no bigger than a large desk that uses the same energy as an electric kettle. Two mini-magnetospheres will be contained within two mini satellites located outside the spaceship. Should there be an increase in solar wind flux, or an approaching cloud of energetic particles from a flare and/or coronal mass ejection (CME), the magnetospheres can be switched on and the solar ions are deflected away from the spacecraft.

These initial experiments have shown promise and that it may be possible to shield astronauts from deadly space weather,” Dr Bamford said. After all, the effects of radiation poisoning can be devastating.

Prof. Bob Bingham, a theoretical physicist at the University of Strathclyde, gives a graphic account as to why this technology is important:

Solar storms or winds are one of the greatest dangers of deep space travel. If you got hit by one not only would it take out the electronics of a ship but the astronauts would soon take on the appearance of an overcooked pizza. It would be a bit like being near the Hiroshima blast. Your skin would blister, hair and teeth fall out and before long your internal organs would fail. It is not a very nice way to go. This system creates a Magnetic Field Bubble that would deflect the dangerous radiation away from the spacecraft.” – Prof. Bob Bingham

Bingham added that the team was currently patenting the technology and hopes to have a working full size prototype within five years. So we might have to wait some time until we see some pictures of the system in action

Source: Telegraph (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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