London : ‘Space weather’, comprising solar radiation and cosmic rays, poses the single biggest hurdle to man’s trip to Mars.
However, latest research shows how advances in fusion research may reduce the threat to acceptable levels, making man’s first Mars mission a much greater possibility.
Solar energetic particles, although part of ‘cosmic rays’ spectrum, are causing the greatest concern because they are the most likely to cause deadly radiation damage to astronauts.
Large numbers of these energetic particles strike intermittently and unexpectedly as “storms,” known to pose the greatest threat to man. Nature helps protect the planet by enveloping it with a giant “magnetic bubble,” called the magnetosphere.
Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon’s surface are the only humans to have travelled beyond the earth’s natural “force field” or its magnetosphere.
With typical Apollo missions lasting only about eight days, it was possible to miss an encounter with such a storm; a journey to Mars, however, would take about 18 months, when the probability of being struck by such solar storms would be a 100-fold.
Space craft visiting the Moon or Mars could maintain some of this protection by taking along their very own portable “mini”-magnetosphere, according to an Institute of Physics (IOP) release.
The idea has been around since the 1960s but it was thought impractical because it was believed that only a very large (more than 100km wide) magnetic bubble could possibly work.
Researchers at the Rutherford Appleton Lab, Universities of York, Strathclyde and IST Lisbon, have undertaken experiments to show it is possible for astronauts to shield their spacecrafts with a portable magnetosphere.
Computer simulations done by a team in Lisbon with scientists at Rutherford last year showed that theoretically a very much smaller “magnetic bubble” several hundred meters across would be enough to protect a spacecraft.
Ruth Bamford, of Rutherford said “these initial experiments have shown promise that it may be possible to shield astronauts from deadly space weather”.
Now this has been confirmed in the laboratory in Britain using apparatus originally built to work on fusion.
These findings were published Tuesday in IOP’s Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion.