So you’ve signed up for the trip to Mars and ready to go where no one has gone before. But there’s just one problem: radiation. NASA’s Curiosity rover on the Red Planet discovered that any astronauts traveling between Earth and Mars would be exposed to dangerously high amounts of radiation in space, thanks to cosmic rays and high-energy particles from the sun. This radiation could cause serious health problems — such as neurodegeneration — in astronauts and is something scientists would like to avoid. Unfortunately, a solution to this problem hasn’t been solved... until now.
Although it was previously thought that shielding to block radiation would have to be relatively thick and too heavy to be attached to a spacecraft, scientists are looking at Earth’s own magnetic field for a better answer. On Earth, we are protected from the Sun’s damaging rays by the presence of the magnetosphere. So scientists decided to create something similar for space travel.
Scientists at U.K.’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) plan to create an environment around a spacecraft that will, in essence, mimic the Earth’s magnetic field. This mini magnetosphere is currently being tested on a concept spaceship called Discovery (not to be confused with the Space Shuttle Discovery).
According to Ruth Bamford, the lead researcher on the project, the Earth’s magnetic field forms a first line of protection against such radiation. So the concept for Discovery is including that knowledge plus scientists’ growing understanding of plasmas.
“What we discovered is that if you put a magnetic field around an object in flowing plasma, the electrons, which are very light, will follow the new magnetic field that you’ve put there,” Bamford said. “But the ions, the very fast ions, will overshoot — they won’t follow the magnetic field lines.”
This creates a constant electric field that can deflect the radiation in order to protect the astronauts inside the spacecraft.
So it’s not exactly like the deflector shields in Star Trek, in that it only deflects radiation, but it is close. And it makes that first manned mission to Mars just that much more possible and inevitable.