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…
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.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)