Researchers from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Universities of York, Strathclyde in the U.K., and the Institutio Superior Technico in Portugal have created a simulated solar wind inside their laboratory and successfully deflected it around a central spot using magnetic fields. The result is a hole in the middle of the solar wind free of all harmful particles. They managed this small-scale test – creating a one meter area devoid of particles – using a plasma jet and a simple $20 magnet. The experiment was successful on the first attempt and the generated hole was observed to adjust itself based on the strength of the solar wind. Stronger winds resulted in a smaller but more intense magnetic field, resembling their behavior in the real magnetosphere.
While wholly successful, these tests are just the first step to creating a successful magnetic shield for a spaceship. It’s unclear whether it’s best to simply include a magnetic generator inside the spaceship or to use secondary ships accompanying primary (manned) spaceships to allow finer tuning of the field strength and direction. It may also be possible to cycle the magnetic generators on and off in order to conserve power on a long journey where power may be at a premium. The project head, Dr. Ruth Bamford of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, believes they are 15 to 20 years away from practical implementation of these magnetic shields.
In addition to protecting astronauts from long-term effects of exposure to these particles, a magnetic shield would also protect the spaceship itself. There has already been one documented case of a solar flare damaging the electronic systems on a spaceship (the Japanese Nozomi Mars mission in 2002); protection against such damage may be the difference between successful future missions and expensive failures.
TFOT has previously reported on innovative space technologies currently under development or in their testing stages. Among others, you can find articles on the VASIMR plasma rocket, which is being developed by Ad Astra Rocket Company, the NanoSail-D solar sail developed by NASA, and the Lemur robots that were designed to aid astronauts in spaceship and space station maintenance tasks.
You can read more about the magnetic shield in the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) press release. You can also read the abstract of the paper written by Dr. Bamford and her colleagues here. The paper was published in the December 2008 issue of Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion.
Image icon: Diagram showing the shielding effects of Earth’s magnetosphere (Credit: NASA)