Feeds

Forcefields will guard Mars ships from solar ion storms

Boffins crack portable particle-squall brolly tech

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

A team of top boffins believe that they have cracked one of the main problems of interplanetary travel - that of surviving deadly solar radiation storms. The physicists say they have come up with an idea for a crafty forcefield which could stand off the protoplasm-punishing particle squalls of deep space.

An image of the storm-wracked solar atmosphere

There's plenty of weather on the sun.

Thus far, only a very few people have ever travelled beyond the protection of the Earth's magnetosphere - the Apollo astronauts who went to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s. All other humans in space - including the crews of the present-day International Space Station - have remained within the protective magnetic field of their home planet.

The Apollo missions were reasonably safe because they were brief - only days long. The risk of a major solar radiation storm was minimal. Even so, had there been a serious solar event during an Apollo mission the results might have been disastrous - the more so as there is no lunar atmosphere to protect explorers.

A journey to Mars, however, is projected to take 6 months - and then there's the return trip to consider. Even though the astronauts would be protected by the Martian atmosphere (and the planet itself) during their stay, a year in deep space would be very dangerous. Even normal background radiation could be expected to use up much of an astronaut's lifetime exposure limit.

A solar storm, more or less bound to occur over such a period, would breach the health guidelines and create an unacceptable risk of cancer. A bad particle squall could cause radiation sickness severe enough to incapacitate or even kill a Mars-ship crew on the spot.

But now boffins at the Rutherford Appleton Lab and the Universities of York, Strathclyde and Lisbon have shown that it's possible to generate a "portable magnetosphere" or magnetic forcefield just a few hundred metres across, which would prevent ionised particles reaching a space ship. It had previously been thought that only mighty planetary-scale fields could possibly be effective, but new computer simulations suggest that just a small "hole" in the solar winds could be enough.

“These initial experiments have shown promise," said Dr Ruth Bamford of the Rutherford Appleton lab, rather cautiously.

"It may be possible to shield astronauts from deadly space weather.”

Astronauts in a ship moving through space would find a nifty lightweight forcefield especially useful. Ordinary radiation shielding is extremely heavy, but everything in a spaceship must be as light as possible, every kilo of mass being precious. On the other hand the power required to generate a "magnetic bubble" could be an issue.

The new research would seem to have implications for NASA's plans to build a permanent Moon base, too. While lunar explorers would gain a good deal of protection from the Moon itself, blocking out half the sky, the lack of any atmosphere would see an explorer caught outside his thick-walled underground moon bunker by a solar storm during daylight in serious trouble. Moon rovers and inflatable habitats of the future might find magno-forcefield kit very handy.

Needless to say, reasonably portable forcefields would also be invaluable for the hover tanks, power-armour suits or interplanetary battlecruisers of tomorrow - ideal for resisting deadly particle-cannon blaster beams, krenon rays* etc.

The research is set out in a new paper: The Interactions of a flowing plasma with a dipole magnetic field: measurements and modelling of a diamagnetic cavity relevant to spacecraft protection (R Bamford et al 2008 Plasma Phys. Control. Fusion 50 124025). It's published online here. ®

*We would vote for the next kind of ray or beam to be called this.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
MARS NEEDS WOMEN, claims NASA pseudo 'naut: They eat less
'Some might find this idea offensive' boffin admits
SECRET U.S. 'SPACE WARPLANE' set to return from SPY MISSION
Robot minishuttle X-37B returns after almost 2 years in orbit
LOHAN crash lands on CNN
Overflies Die Welt en route to lively US news vid
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
No sail: NASA spikes Sunjammer
'Solar sail' demonstrator project binned
America's super-secret X-37B plane returns to Earth after nearly TWO YEARS aloft
674 days in space for US Air Force's mystery orbital vehicle
Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody
Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut
Origins of SEXUAL INTERCOURSE fished out of SCOTTISH LAKE
Fossil find proves it first happened 385 million years ago
Human spacecraft dodge COMET CHUNKS pelting off Mars
Odyssey orbiter yet to report, though - comet's trailing trash poses new threat
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.