Space is a cold, dark place filled with radiation that can, quite literally, fry your brain if you are foolhardy enough to venture out without adequate protection. This is a major cause of concern for space agencies, including NASA, that are planning to launch manned missions to Mars and beyond in the coming decades.
Scientists at CERN -- the organization that operates the world’s largest particle accelerator -- have now come up with an idea to equip future spaceships with a Star Trek-like force field that would protect them from deadly cosmic rays.
Cosmic rays are made of massive, high-speed, electrically charged particles emerging from every direction in space. Recent studies on mice have shown that exposure to these rays can cause brain damage and deteriorate cognitive function.
Life on Earth is protected from these rays by the planet’s magnetosphere, which acts as a blanket, blocking out harmful radiation. However, astronauts who would venture beyond the planet’s magnetic field -- to Mars, for instance, -- will be continuously bombarded with high-energy cosmic rays that might, in addition to brain damage, cause a significant increase in the probability of various types of cancers.
As a result, exploration missions to other planets, including the red one, will only become possible if an effective solution for adequately shielding astronauts is found.
In a statement released Wednesday, a team of CERN scientists working with the Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S) project, a collaborative, European Union-funded effort, said that they are testing whether superconductor coils made from magnesium diboride -- an inexpensive binary compound -- can be used to create a magnetic shielding technology for spaceships.
“In the framework of this project, CERN is testing magnesium diboride tape in a configuration that has specifically been developed for the SR2S project,” CERN scientist Amalia Ballarino said in the statement. “If the prototype coil we will be testing produces successful results, we will have contributed important information to the feasibility of the superconducting magnetic shield.”
Since superconductors can conduct electricity with zero resistance, they can carry current indefinitely without losing energy. Moreover, because all moving charged particles generate a magnetic field, this phenomenon can be used to create a blanket of an artificial magnetosphere around a spaceship that would protect those on board from harmful radiation.
The bad news is that unlike the USS Enterprise, these force fields won’t be of much use against a concerted attack by hostile aliens.