New spaceship force field makes Mars trip possible

Nov 04, 2008
A handout image received courtesy of the US Geological Survey shows planet Mars
A handout image received courtesy of the US Geological Survey shows planet Mars. Scientists believe they have found a way of protecting astronauts from a dangerous source of space radiation, thus lifting a major doubt clouding the dream to send humans to Mars.

According to the international space agencies, "Space Weather" is the single greatest obstacle to deep space travel. Radiation from the sun and cosmic rays pose a deadly threat to astronauts in space.

New research, out today, Tuesday, November 4, published in IOP Publishing's Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, shows how knowledge gained from the pursuit of nuclear fusion research may reduce the threat to acceptable levels, making man's first mission to Mars a much greater possibility.

The solar energetic particles, although just part of the 'cosmic rays' spectrum, are of greatest concern because they are the most likely to cause deadly radiation damage to the astronauts.

Large numbers of these energetic particles occur intermittently as "storms" with little warning and are already known to pose the greatest threat to man. Nature helps protect the Earth by having a giant "magnetic bubble" around the planet called the magnetosphere.

The Apollo astronauts of the 1960's and 70's who walked upon the Moon are the only humans to have travelled beyond the Earth's natural "force field" – the Earth's magnetosphere. With typical journeys on the Apollo missions lasting only about 8 days, it was possible to miss an encounter with such a storm; a journey to Mars, however, would take about eighteen months, during which time it is almost certain that astronauts would be enveloped by such a "solar storm".

Space craft visiting the Moon or Mars could maintain some of this protection by taking along their very own portable "mini"-magnetosphere. The idea has been around since the 1960's but it was thought impractical because it was believed that only a very large (more than 100km wide) magnetic bubble could possibly work.

Researchers at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Universities of York, Strathclyde and IST Lisbon, have undertaken experiments, using know-how from 50 years of research into nuclear fusion, to show that it is possible for astronauts to shield their spacecrafts with a portable magnetosphere - scattering the highly charged, ionised particles of the solar wind and flares away from their space craft.

Computer simulations done by a team in Lisbon with scientists at Rutherford Appleton last year showed that theoretically a very much smaller "magnetic bubble" of only several hundred meters across would be enough to protect a spacecraft.

Now this has been confirmed in the laboratory in the UK using apparatus originally built to work on fusion. By recreating in miniature a tiny piece of the Solar Wind, scientists working in the laboratory were able to confirm that a small "hole" in the Solar Wind is all that would be needed to keep the astronauts safe on their journey to our nearest neighbours.

Dr. Ruth Bamford, one of the lead researchers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, said, "These initial experiments have shown promise and that it may be possible to shield astronauts from deadly space weather".

The published version of the 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) will be available online from Day, Date Month. It will be available at

Source: Institute of Physics

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User comments : 24

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2.3 / 5 (7) Nov 04, 2008
ABOUT TIME. Just watch out for "magnetic cylinders" that allow flux transfer events of the solar wind. ;) Or maybe they could use that to their advantage... As fuel?

Welcome to age of Plasma.
3 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2008
I'm pretty sure I read nearly this exact same article about a year ago... quite possibly about this same group of researchers.
3.8 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2008
I wonder how large the generator needs to be to make a bubble several football fields wide...
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 04, 2008
This would be a great achievement for deep space travel if it turns out to work. Wouldn't also the effects of the portable magnetosphere, while causing the scattering or repulsion of the charged particle from the solar wind also give the space craft a tiny boost just like the ion drive?
3.3 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2008
I wonder how large the generator needs to be to make a bubble several football fields wide...

I was wondering the same thing. Perhaps the craft and generator could be manufactured in pieces, launched in stages, and assembled in space.

Wouldn't also the effects of the portable magnetosphere, while causing the scattering or repulsion of the charged particle from the solar wind also give the space craft a tiny boost just like the ion drive?

I would imagine so. Could the magnetic field potentially improve an ion drive by accelerating the particles away from the craft and increasing the time the particles momentum is being transferred as it travels through the field?

Also, could solar sails be deployed at the edges of the magnetic fields where the solar wind would be more concentrated?
3 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2008
How strong would the magnetic field need to be in order to protect the crew from the solar energetic particles? What effect would the magnetic field of said strength have on the crew over the duration of the trip?
Has any applicable research into this level of magnetic field exposure ever been conducted?
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 04, 2008
The spacecraft is metal - I would think it could be magnetized. Of course a permanent magnet wouldn't be strong enough by itself but I imagine it would help.
4 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2008
Could the same magnets driving an MHD drive also generate said field? If so, Check out Mechanical Engineering Magazines November issue page 42 for a fun read. Also, Earls

Welcome to age of Plasma.

If you really are interested in MHD plasma drives, I'd recommend buying the ME Article, it's not some theory or a nice hypothesis, it's an engine in Huntsville, Alabama. Very wicked.
4 / 5 (5) Nov 04, 2008
What I love best about this is early in my highschool days I'd suggested something like this in Physics class in a project on theoretical future technologies. As I recall I got a D on the paper because it was imaginary and imposible. While I doubt Ms. Gray (one of the few physics teachers in the country who didn't know the difference between a hyperbola and a parabola, gotta love TN) reads this, if you do I hope you choke on your dinner.
3 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2008
Hey Roach, my Grandfather got a similar response from a college professor when he suggested that if you could turn DC into AC, you ought to be able to turn AC into DC, thereby eliminating the need for batteries in radio receivers (this was around 1920). The professor told him that after he completed the class, he'd know why "turning AC into DC is impossible."
3 / 5 (2) Nov 04, 2008
Your Grandfather's professor was an idiot. Turning AC into DC was simple, even in 1920. Railroads had been doing it for decades, using rotary convertors. Basically, all they are is an AC motor connected to a DC generator, and they powered most of the streetcar and DC-electrified mainlines in the country. In some cases, they were even put IN the locomotive, to allow high-voltage AC power to be sent to the locomotive, instead of using low-voltage DC on the wires. In theory, there is no reason a rotary convertor couldn't be made small enough for a 1920s radio, and it probably would have weighed less than the batteries. The same technology works equally well in reverse, allowing the DC motors to be used as generators for braking, and feeding the power back into the distribution system.

They also had tube diodes by then, which do the job very nicely.

We had one of these types for a high school chemistry teacher in the 70s. He didn't believe in antimatter, and refused to teach that section!
1.8 / 5 (8) Nov 04, 2008
i will go to mars people!hit me up when the spaceship is ready!i dont care for radiation or anything!ill take my medications with me!good night!
1 / 5 (5) Nov 04, 2008
interesting proposition velvet pink
2 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2008
Hey velvetpink - good to read your contribution - glad to see you have slowed down on the caffeine or have been taking your medication.

Funny how Science Teachers like to push there own ideas and not teach Science. My high school science teacher was not much into teaching large chunks of science because he was a Creationist and thought that the world was created about 5,000 years ago or some such rubbish.

Anything that required an older earth was considered a crackpot idea by him and that covers a lot of stuff.

Radioactive decay, evolution, geography, continental drift, archeology, just to name a few.
3 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2008
Umm... So have they figured out what the requirements are for a given craft size? Because if the magnet needs to be big then you won't be able to launch the shield and craft together.

Also, how is the field to be manipulated to control shape and direction of the shield? It has to rotate so your butt doesn't get radiated on your way out to Mars.

And lastly how will this mess with the instruments on board the craft?

Lots of actual usage details to work out...
3 / 5 (3) Nov 05, 2008
I wonder if this technology could help make a colony on Europa one day practical.
1.8 / 5 (4) Nov 05, 2008
One option would be to send several smaller "magnet Craft" which would encircle the crewed ship and provide the magnetic field for teh craft. eliminating the need to build bulky magnets in to the crewed ships hull.
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 05, 2008
No sweat! Just use "expendable people". That includes all who would use "earth money" to send people to Mars!
1.4 / 5 (8) Nov 05, 2008
i will go! i am fit and bright as a supernova!my IQ is somewhere over 250 and i can handle the computers!i so wanna explore that lovely planet!put me on the list im first to go!hardly waiting.and make that spacecraft already;(
1 / 5 (1) Nov 07, 2008
One option would be to send several smaller "magnet Craft" which would encircle the crewed ship and provide the magnetic field for teh craft. eliminating the need to build bulky magnets in to the crewed ships hull.

Good answer, I think.

Another possibility would be a "shield ship".

Like use some ultra light nano material make a giant umbrella in space which flies behind the crewed vessel, and then flies ahead of them on the return trip.
not rated yet Nov 09, 2008
That idea could also serve another purpose: micrometeoroid protection. It wouldn't protect against "rocks", but dust grains would tend to vaporize hitting the umbrella before they get to the skin of the crewed ship.
2 / 5 (1) Nov 09, 2008
It seems like a magnetic field this strong would wreak havoc with the electronic equipment...
5 / 5 (2) Nov 09, 2008
my IQ is somewhere over 250
Agreed, the "somewhere" is about 1, giving you an IQ of 1/250
1 / 5 (1) Nov 10, 2008
my IQ is somewhere over 250
Agreed, the "somewhere" is about 1, giving you an IQ of 1/250

Man!If you only knew!

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