Researchers 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.
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