Feeds

Forcefields will guard Mars ships from solar ion storms

Boffins crack portable particle-squall brolly tech

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

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.

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Vulture 2 takes a battering in 100km/h test run
Still in one piece, but we're going to need MORE POWER
TRIANGULAR orbits will help Rosetta to get up close with Comet 67P
Probe will be just 10km from Space Duck in October
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
CRR-CRRRK, beep, beep: Mars space truck backs out of slippery sand trap
Curiosity finds new drilling target after course correction
China to test recoverable moon orbiter
I'll have some rocks and a moon cheese pizza please, home delivery
What does a flashmob of 1,024 robots look like? Just like this
Sorry, Harvard, did you say kilobots or KILLER BOTS?
NASA's rock'n'roll shock: ROLLING STONE FOUND ON MARS
No sign of Ziggy Stardust and his band
Why your mum was WRONG about whiffy tattooed people
They're a future source of RENEWABLE ENERGY
Vulture 2 spaceplane autopilot brain surgery a total success
LOHAN slips into some sexy bespoke mission parameters
prev story

Whitepapers

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup
IT departments are embracing cloud backup, but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing a service provider. Learn all the critical things you need to know.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.