Feeds

Boffins to test Star Trek space shield

Set deflectors to maximum

High performance access to file storage

Star Trek's fantasy technology is proving to be an important inspiration for real-world scientists, as researchers in the UK start work on a magnetic deflector shield that could potentially protect astronauts from space radiation.

Space, even the bits in between the planets in our little solar system, is awash with dangerous radiation. Some of these highly charged particles can be traced back to solar storms, the normal solar wind, and distant supernovae. Others come from as yet unidentified sources, further out in space.

All this radiation poses a threat to astronauts of long missions outside of Earth's protective magnetic field, such as a trip to Mars, or Moon colonists.

A team at the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory has been developing technology they hope will actually go on a test flight. The research has been presented at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Preston.

The team plans to trap a cloud of plasma inside a magnetic field they will generate themselves, by running current through loops of wires. In principle, the magnetic field should deflect charged particles. In the next few months, the group plans to see how well the field will hold onto the plasma cloud by running a test in a 2m-long vacuum chamber. A second test in a larger chamber is slated for the end of 2007.

Robert Bingham of Rutherford Appleton Lab told New Scientist that he hoped to run a test on an actual space flight within 10 to 15 years.

However, Frank Cucinotta, NASA's chief radiation health officer, says the whole idea has a major flaw: if anything goes wrong with a field-shield, the whole shield and all its protective benefit could be lost. With physical shielding there are no moving parts and less risk of a catastrophic failure.

But despite NASA's doubts, the team might well be onto something. The main principles of their experiment have already been successfully demonstrated.

In 1984, on the Active Magnetospheric Particle Tracer Explorer (AMPTE), a plasma cloud was shown to protect a satellite from the onslaught of radiation in the solar wind. But on this mission, which aimed to study plasma dynamics, there was no attempt made to contain the plasma cloud, and it was gradually eroded and drifted away in space.

In July last year, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle thought they might see if they could recreate the protections of Earth's magnetic field by creating a bubble of plasma to surround a spacecraft. They managed to create a protected zone a few centimetres across. The question the UK boffins want to answer is: will it scale up? ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Fancy joining Reg hack on quid-a-day challenge?
Recruiting now for charity starvation diet
Red-faced LOHAN team 'fesses up in blown SPEARS fuse fiasco
Standing in the corner, big pointy 'D' hats
KILLER SPONGES menacing California coastline
Surfers are safe, crustaceans less so
LOHAN's Punch and Judy show relaunches Thursday
Weather looking good for second pop at test flights
Discovery time for 200m WONDER MATERIALS shaved from 4 MILLENNIA... to 4 years
Alloy, Alloy: Boffins in speed-classification breakthrough
Elon Musk's LEAKY THRUSTER gas stalls Space Station supply run
Helium seeps from Falcon 9 first stage, delays new legs for NASA robonaut
Top Secret US payload launched into space successfully
Clandestine NRO spacecraft sets off on its unknown mission
New FEMTO-MOON sighted BIRTHING from Saturn's RING
Icy 'Peggy' looks to be leaving the outer rings
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.