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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? ®

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