November 04, 2008
Small Magnetosphere Could Protect Space Travelers

If you've put off scheduling a Mars trip due to the threat from solar particle events and other sources of radiation a portable magnetosphere might some day make a trip to Mars much safer.

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.

....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".

It is hard to protect astronauts outside of Earth's orbit from galactic cosmic radiation and solar particle events.

Energetic protons are mainly produced during solar particle events, sporadic showers that usually coincide with maximum sunspot activity. More dangerous is galactic cosmic radiation (GCR), atomic nuclei produced during supernova explosions that travel at almost the speed of light. GCR arrives from all directions, and induces cancer as it hurtles through the body. On Earth, the planet's magnetic field and atmosphere combine to deter and block these particles. But shielding a spacecraft requires mass, and the mass of shielding that can practically be launched on a spaceship will only reduce GCR by 20% to 30%, says Frank Cucinotta, of NASA's Space Radiation Health Project at the Johnson Space Center.

We need better robot tech in order to colonize Mars. The robots could go first and do lots of work to create living quarters and enclosed farms before humans arrived. We also need better photovoltaics or workable fusion reactors for energy. Plus, we need lots of genetic engineering to create organisms to provide a variety of products for colonists. Most of this tech will get developed for other reasons. So colonization of Mars will become much easier with time.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 November 04 09:34 PM  Space Exploration

Paul F. Dietz said at November 5, 2008 11:46 AM:

The experiment showed the solar wind would be deflected by a magnetic bubble.

But the solar wind is innocuous. Its has ions with energies in the KeV range, which are not penetrating. Flare particles are the dangerous ones, and they are far more energetic (hundreds of MeV or more).

If the experiment's purpose was to show that a magnetic bubble large/strong enough to deflect flare particles would not also be collapsed by the pressure of the solar wind, great, but the press release did not state that.

Ken said at November 5, 2008 12:58 PM:

I expect we'll colonise Antarctica before we colonise Mars - more resources, better climate and easier to emigrate from when the colony, in a deadly environment and utterly dependent on the lots of expensive technologies and resources from outside, fails to thrive.

Sorry Randall, I think it makes for great fiction to colonise Mars, with or without magnetic bubbles but the reality is this blue ball is where all the action is and I don't see that changing. I read Red Mars and got put off by witnessing the recipients of a vast fortune of Earth's resources and investments promptly turn around and give Earth a big finger at the first opportunity, even if the story sets up Earth as the shortsighted bad guys who just don't get it.

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