Portable force field could protect future spaceships

Force field protection of spacecraft or battleships and aircraft is the stuff of Star Trek and science fiction motion pictures. Usually.

Researchers said today that it is possible to for astronauts to protect their spacecrafts with a portable system known as a magnetosphere that cold keep space environmental threats such as solar wind and flares away from their ship.

The idea is to create a system that would scatter highly charged, ionized particles of nuclear fusion would create a magnetic bubble that could protect spacecraft hurtling through the cosmos. Researchers at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Universities of York, Strathclyde and IST Lisbon, have undertaken experiments, using 50 years of research into nuclear fusion, to show such a portable system is possible.

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 about several hundred feet across would be enough to protect a spacecraft, the group said in a statement. 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. from deadly space weather.

Researchers said 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. The Earth is protected from such storm by its own magnetosphere, researchers noted.

On a flight to Mars, which would take about eighteen months, astronauts would certainly encounter solar storms and other threats, researchers said.

According to the researchers the idea of a portable magnetosphere has been around since the 1960's but it was thought impractical because it was believed that only a very large (like 328,000ft) magnetic bubble could possibly work and the electrical voltage required to protect people would be unworkable, researchers said.

NASA has worked on similar portable shields. On its Web site, the space agency said : It sounds wonderful, but there are many scientific and engineering problems yet to be solved. For example, skeptics note that an electrostatic shield on the Moon is susceptible to being short circuited by floating moondust, which is itself charged by solar ultraviolet radiation. Solar wind blowing across the shield can cause problems, too. Electrons and protons in the wind could become trapped by the maze of forces that make up the shield, leading to strong and unintended electrical currents right above the heads of the astronauts.

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