A Star Trek style deflector shield that could protect deep-space astronauts, such as the much-discussed manned mission to Mars, from cancer-causing levels of radiation is in testing, researchers have revealed. The system, described as a "mini-magnetosphere" in reference to the Earth's magnetic field which protects us from solar radiation, is the handiwork of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and relies upon the fact that by creating a magnetic field around a spacecraft, the dangerous rays can be deflected and the astronauts preserved in a bubble of safety for their journey.
The question of dealing solar radiation is a topical one, with the problem one of the key issues around proposed manned missions to Mars. Sifting through the data pulled from the unmanned Curiosity mission, NASA discovered that the exposure a human crew could expect far exceeded the maximum lifetime exposure limit the space agency recommends.
Just as any manned Mars trip is still some way out, so is a version of the "deflector shield" technology that could protect a human-sized craft. Still, the Rutherford Appleton Lab team does have a working prototype; speaking to CNN, the UK-based team explained that it had tested the theory on a model of a space ship inside a fusion reactor, where solar wind style plasma is created. The team was "delighted" with the end results, Ruth Bamford, lead researcher for the project, suggested.
"The concept behind what we're suggesting is due to the evolution in our understanding of plasmas. What we discovered is that if you put a magnetic field around an object in a flowing plasma, the electrons, which are very light, will follow the new magnetic field that you've put there but the ions, the very fast ions, will overshoot -- they won't follow the magnetic field lines.
You end up with a constant electric field that can be enough that it actually refracts or deflects enough of the radiation from inside the magnetic cavity that you've formed to protect the astronauts ... enough like the Earth that they can survive" Ruth Bamford, RAL
The next step, Bamford says, is a demonstration that the theory is sound out in space, with the goal being a working - though unmanned - prototype within the next five years.
The radiation issue is just one of the challenges proposals to send a crew to the red planet face, not least being budgetary concerns. NASA has already said that, with its current budget, it would never be able to fund a manned mission; instead, it's hoping that private companies will rise to the challenge, addressing problems like crew health and safety while NASA takes a more managerial role.