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Ion Shield for Interplanetary Spaceships Now a Reality

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ben November 5, 2008, 8:04 AM

    >historians running the economy;

    Surely this is a very good idea?!

    If only financial policy makers could look a bit further back than the last quarter they might be able to avoid such huge disasters.

    They only had to search wikipedia for “Savings and Loans scandal”, an event which occurred less than twenty years ago to avoid this whole mess.


  • Peter November 5, 2008, 9:56 PM


    We HAVE a particle shield around Earth, how do you think life has survived here so long?
    And Chuck, there really aren’t a lot of space rocks etc out there. That’s why they call it a vacuum in space. There’s nothing there. Think about our satellites and robot probes, none have been hit by anything bigger than dust! I think this is a HUGE step forward! If you can live within the shield, and work electronic equipment then we have the first working part of the first Starship!

  • Chuck Lam November 6, 2008, 7:32 AM

    To Peter, I’m thinking that the ‘lost contact’ with several probes over the years could easily be the result of destruction running into space debris rather than failure of communication electronics. It would be challenging to prove or disprove the possibility of space debris induced vehicle destruction. Or, for that matter, the statistical odds for such an event. I don’t believe space is as empty as we think it is. Space debris may be an insurmountable barrier to space travel.

  • Prime November 6, 2008, 7:15 PM

    Although this research isn’t generally known to the public, it describes, in part, a non-rocket approach to the Magnetic Ion type shield.
    As you can see, there are many more advantages to this approach.


  • dollhopf @ Prime November 7, 2008, 3:09 AM

    ;))) oh my goodness ;))) amusing

  • dollhopf November 7, 2008, 3:54 AM

    just another crazy idea

    would it be useful to upgrade the ISS with a Bamford small-scale magnetosphere generator? The ISS then possibly could orbit earth in a much higher orbit, because the crew’s health would no longer depend on the protecting earth magnetosphere. Thus, the atmospheric drag of low orbit could be avoided.

    What side effects could such a magnetosphere have to the station’s system?

  • RetardedFishFrog November 8, 2008, 6:15 AM

    They should make a very large solar-powered version of these. Put one at EM L1 and the other at EM L2 to shield a future moon base.

  • Damion November 9, 2008, 12:45 PM

    Wow, this is really amazing!
    I bet there going to use this for SPACE COMBAT!!!!!


  • charbel December 31, 2008, 9:45 AM

    i got you a tips for spare on energy to the spaceship the atmosfer of mars is big and the thing i wana say is you can get the energi from the atmosfer off mars but its will be a problem when you coming upp agen from the atmosfer