Fusion researchers in the United Kingdom, Portugal and Sweden have demonstrated the feasibility of a force field that could be used to protect astronauts on their way to Mars from radiation in space.
In research published on Tuesday in The Institute of Physics Publishing's Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, scientists with the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Universities of Strathclyde, Umea, and York, IST Lisbon, and Culham Science Centre, demonstrate "the potential viability of being able to create a small 'hole' in a Solar Wind plasma... in which an inhabited spacecraft could reside in relative safety."
"A major issue for the future of manned space exploration is the potentially lethal damage to human tissue from exposure to radiation in space arising, for example, from the solar wind," the research paper states.
Building upon 50 years of fusion research, the scientists believe they can generate a force field to block that radiation, using what they're calling a "mini-magnetosphere."
Professor Robert Bingham of STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, one of the co-authors of "The interaction of a flowing plasma with a dipole magnetic field: measurements and modeling of a diamagnetic cavity relevant to spacecraft protection," said that in the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Apollo missions were timed carefully to coincide with periods of low solar activity. But during the eighteen months it would take to reach Mars, protection from space weather -- solar and cosmic rays -- would be necessary.
"If you actually are hit by these particles, the DNA in your body will break and it might not be able to repair," he said. "You could actually die from an overdose of lethal ionizing radiation."
Though the idea of a magnetic radiation shield has been considered for a long time, it has been considered to be impractical because it was believed that any protective bubble would have to be over 100 kilometers wide.
But Bingham and his colleagues believe that the force shield would need to be no more than a few hundred meters in diameter. He said that the structures to generate the protective field, a coil around the spacecraft, would only need one or two kilowatts of power to operate intermittently, perhaps two or three hours per day. This could be generated from the spacecraft's solar cells, he said.
The concept wouldn't work for astronauts in space. "The construction of this device is more complicated than putting a couple of wires around the astronaut," he said. "If you had it on an astronaut, the weight would be quite significant. But you could actually put it on a rover."
NASA hasn't yet committed to a manned mission to Mars. Its next unmanned scout mission, called MAVEN, is scheduled to launch in 2013.