Shields up! Star Trek defences for real

Scientists have invented a defence barrier for spaceships just like in Star Trek. It may not withstand attacks from Klingon battleships just yet. But it will protect astronauts from space weather – deadly radiation blasts on journeys to Mars.

Orion in flight
Picture: An artist’s impression of NASA’s next big space endeavour, an Ares-1 rocket launching an Orion capsule into space.

UK scientists from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, near Oxford, created their space shield by mimicking a natural force field that protects us all. And they did it with a simple, shop-bought magnet costing around $20.

Earth acts like a giant natural magnet, creating a barrier that deflects the radiation that bombards our planet during storms on the sun. This barrier, called the magnetosphere, produces the spectacular northern lights that dance in the night sky.

The British team, which also included scientists from universities at York, Strathclyde and Lisbon, invented a similar barrier that could surround spacecraft. Radiation has been seen as the greatest danger facing astronauts on long spaceflights. Powerful enough blasts could even kill a crew.

The team, led by Dr Ruth Bamford, of RAL, announced their idea for a protective bubble last year. They were not sure that their set-up would be powerful enough to work when they experimented with a model in the laboratory. But it worked first time.

Dr Bamford told Skymania News: “These initial experiments have shown promise and it may be possible to shield astronauts from deadly space weather. NASA have shown a lot of interest in our work. We’ve shown this is possible and not just science fiction. It is all very encouraging.”

“NASA are bound to face all sorts of problems when they return to the Moon or fly to Mars but protecting astronauts from radiation is one of the greatest concerns.

“We are already in regular correspondence with Dr Frank Cucinotta of NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory. Practical application to a spaceship is still some years away but it is all looking very positive.”

She says it will take 15 to 20 years to develop a full-scale model for a real spaceship. But that would make it available in time for the first manned missions to Mars in a few decades time.

Dr Bamford pointed out that science fiction shows had got their ideas for defence fields from the Earth’s own protective field. “The shields in Star Trek were inspired by the magnetosphere in the first place,” she said.

The results are reported in the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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