Traveling to Mars? You'll Need This Miniature Magnetic Force-Field

By Eliza Strickland | November 4, 2008 4:42 pm

magnetosphereResearchers have tested a small, portable magnetic field that could be just the protection required for a manned expedition to Mars, when astronauts would need to be protected from radiation from solar storms. Researchers say the lab experiment is the proof of concept for a magnetic force-field that mimics the protective qualities of the Earth’s magnetosphere, which shields our planet from that same radiation.

Outside Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field, supersonic particles from stellar processes run amok, screaming through space and tearing through just about anything in their path—including the bodies of astronauts, where they can wreak havoc on genetic material [Scientific American]. Astronauts on the International Space Station are within Earth’s protective magnetic field, so the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon are the only humans who have been exposed to this radiation; happily, there were no major solar storms during their quick trips to the moon and back. However, a manned mission to Mars would take about six months each way, leaving astronauts much more vulnerable.

In the experiment, described in the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, researchers used a plasma beam of charged particles as a substitute for the particles that are flung outward by the solar wind, and fired the beam at a small magnetic field produced by a simple $20 magnet. Lead researcher Ruth Bamford didn’t expect much from the DIY device. “It was believed that you had to have something very large, approaching planetary scale, to work in this way…. [But the] first time we switched it on, it worked,” said Dr Bamford [BBC News]. The magnetic field deflected the particles, creating a small bubble of safety.

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 [The Register]. But Bamford says a great deal of research would be needed to determine how to harness the effect for space travel and settlements. She also says that her “mini-magnetosphere” would have to be considerably stronger to deflect the high-energy cosmic rays that penetrate our solar system from distant reaches of the universe.

Related Content:
80beats: New Race to the Moon Could Bring Permanent Bases and Observatories
DISCOVER: The Future of NASA, on the push to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
  • david heron

    Hopefully now we might investigate devices that do not take an almighty amount of power to function adequately, as this ‘run of the mill’ every day object has produced evidence that big is definitely not better. Unfortunately we can not comprehend that great inventions/discoveries usually start off from something miniscule and then grow through peoples collective and individual effort and knowledge. Let us hope we take heed of this ‘small’ discovery and endeavour not to make ‘huge or large’ inventions that need an infinite quantity of energy(which we increasingly do not have) at this moment.

  • Joe Elliot

    Wouldn’t a good possible way be to use a combined solar/other energy source on a device that would be positioned away from the craft so as to not completely interfere with ships instruments? Say you put a magnet on the wing of a plane, positioned between the sun and the craft, allowing for the deflection of the radiation around the craft, much like earth deflects radiation around itself. On the moon, you could have the device mounted on a sort of tower. Or would this not work due to the radiation curving back in gradually after it is deflected?

  • http://www.strandheuler.de Mallorca Info

    I think you have observed some very interesting details , appreciate it for the post.

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