Friday, November 07, 2008

Shields Up! We're off to Mars (in 30 years)

Researchers at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Universities of York and Strathclyde, and the IST Lisbon may have solved one of the biggest problems facing interplanetary travel — How do we get astronauts there and back without deadly solar radiation frying their DNA and setting off a cascade of cancers and related diseases? The answer is simple: A force field.

"What is this Star Trek crap you're spewing Colonel?" I hear you ask. Well, Bob Bingham of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England has described their solution, basically a force field that wards off solar particles, generated by a powerful electromagnet onboard a spaceship. "The idea is really like in Star Trek, when Scotty turns on a shield to protect the Starship Enterprise from proton beams," Bingham said. "It's almost identical, really."

Their study, published on Tuesday draws on numerical simulation that is also used by experts in nuclear fusion, in which a hot plasma is kept in place by a powerful magnetic field. This technology gives a far more accurate picture of how individual particles behave when they collide with a two-pole magnetic field. As a result, the researchers have been able to devise a smarter, miniaturised model of magnetic protection rather than the blunderbuss-style field generator that was envisaged in the past. Bingham said the "mini magnetosphere" was being pitched both to the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.

The idea of generating a force field is several decades old, but all previous versions of it had presumed a huge field hundreds of miles across — and the size of the electromagnet needed would make that impossible. Bingham and his colleagues, who bombarded a small generated field with radiation guns, showed the "bubble" could be a lot smaller, just a few hundred yards in diameter. The device still wouldn't shield the crew from rare, but extremely powerful, interstellar cosmic rays, but Bingham said a dense protective coating applied to a spaceship's hull would take care of that.

A recent NASA study had concluded that manned missions to Mars would be impossible, because the lead shielding to protect astronauts during the 18-month return trip would be too heavy to get into orbit. In December 2006, a solar flare and the stream of charged particles that followed it caused the crews of the International Space Station and space shuttle Discovery to take cover behind heavy equipment — even though, being in low Earth orbit, the ISS is reasonably well protected by the Earth's magnetic field.

This lifts a major doubt clouding the dream of the conquest, er.. exploration of Mars. The effects of the environment of space is one of the greatest challenges facing Mission: Red Planet sketched by the United States and Europe for some 30 years from now. Even the shortest round trip -- the distance between the two planets would take at least 18 months, during which time, the crew would be exposed to sub-atomic particles boosting the risk of cancer and other disorders.

Read the Press Release here.

Source: AFP / STFC / FoxNews

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This lifts a major doubt clouding the dream of the conquest, er.. exploration of Mars.

Damn it!, Lt.Col I think maybe it's time to put this talk of red states and blue states behind us and rebuild America, instead of looking for a Red Planet for your extreme right wing Republican cronies. Accept it, Obama won.