As if Star Trek didn’t already provide enough futuristic inspiration, scientists from the UK are working on an actual deflector shield that could protect astronauts from dangerous levels of radiation. And it would work in a way that's very similar to how we're protected right here on Earth.
It’s well known that a trip through open space will expose astronauts to excessive amounts of radiation. Late last month, a NASA study showed that Martian-bound astronauts would be bombarded with as much cosmic radiation as they’d get from a full-body CT scan about once a week for a year. That’s two-thirds of allowable lifetime exposure.
Coming up with a solution has not been easy. Physical radiation shielding would be unreasonably thick and heavy, making it completely impractical. There have even been calls to create a radiation shield made of poop.
But the researchers at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) appear to have stumbled upon a rather elegant solution — one that takes the Earth’s magnetic field into account.
Down here on the surface we’re relatively immune to the Sun’s harmful rays owing to the presence of the magnetosphere. So why not recreate the same effect on a spaceship? A kind of mini-magnetosphere?
David Gilbert of CNN recently spoke to lead researcher Ruth Bamford about the idea:
"On Earth, mostly we're protected by the atmosphere but ultimately what the Earth's magnetic field is doing is forming a first line of protection for life," explained Bamford.
"The concept behind what we're suggesting is due to the evolution in our understanding of plasmas. What we discovered is that if you put a magnetic field around an object in a flowing plasma, the electrons, which are very light, will follow the new magnetic field that you've put there but the ions, the very fast ions, will overshoot — they won't follow the magnetic field lines.
"You end up with a constant electric field that can be enough that it actually refracts or deflects enough of the radiation from inside the magnetic cavity that you've formed to protect the astronauts...enough like the Earth that they can survive."
And amazingly, they’ve got a prototype working in the lab. The RAL team has tested a model inside a fusion reactor that produces plasma similar to solar wind — and they say they’re “delighted” by the results.
As exciting as this appears, it's important to note that a tiny model is a far cry from a full-blown spacecraft. But damn!
The next step is to scale-up the device and test the concept up in space, something the researchers hope to see happen by 2018.