New Scientist SPACE – Breaking News – Plasma bubble could protect astronauts on Mars trip

New Scientist SPACE – Breaking News – Plasma bubble could protect astronauts on Mars trip: “A bubble of plasma could shield astronauts from radiation during long journeys through space, researchers are suggesting. If the idea proves viable, it means heavy metal protective panels could be replaced by a plasma shield of just a few grams.”

Plasma shields up! Ok, maybe it isn’t Star Trek…yet. The plasma would have to be contained inside a superconducting wire mesh that would surround the whole ship, but hey, you have to admit that plasma shields are cool. Come on now. Admit it. There you go.

The idea is that in space, you have all sorts of cosmic radiation that would bombard the ship and go right through the hull. Unless you make the hull really thick, e.g. several inches of aluminum. But aluminum (a.k.a. aluminium to the Brits) isn’t very heavy, you say. Well, a few inches thick sheets are really heavy. I’ve used big chunks of aluminum for building microscopes and we aren’t even in the same city as the ballpark of the stuff you put over your potato salad (assuming you don’t use Saran Wrap).

If you make a ship with a hull that is thick enough to block the cosmic radiation, it will be too massive to effectively work. The more mass, the more fuel you need to burn to get it up to speed (or else you have to go really slow and the trip takes years). So a plasma shield would mean that we could make an interplanetary space ship that is a practical mass.

Accounting for the balance of mass/fuel/radiation shielding is one of those things that many SF writers conveniently ignore.


3 Responses to “New Scientist SPACE – Breaking News – Plasma bubble could protect astronauts on Mars trip”

  1. Invention: Plasma-powered flying saucer « Plot Provoking Science Says:

    […] device (war drones, autonomous cameras, automatic dog walkers, etc.) and I’m going to recall a previous story where scientists proposed using a plasma bubble to protect astronauts from radiation during a trip […]

  2. wesley bruce Says:

    Nice idea but not new and not quite a viable design. The challenge of shielding space stations was researched extensively by the L 5 society, now part of the National space society, back in the 1970’s. My preferred design uses half a ton of cable slung in a loop running out from the spacecraft and looping around into a circle. It’s stabilised by spinning it and given a multi kilovolt charge. The result is a magnetic field 2 to 5 km in diameter with nothing at the centre. The crew capsule ends up at the point of the densest field. All the charged particles are deflected to the centre of the circle away from the spacecraft and its inhabitants.
    Another old trick discussed in science fiction circles some decades ago is magnetised plates, big fridge magnets on the hull and a large solenoid magnet; the resulting field being several micro-gauss. Then a pair of particle beams is then fired at a low angle to the magnetic hull so they wrap around the hull in a spiral. The resulting cylindrical charge shield deflects protons and most cosmic rays.

  3. doctodd Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll have to look into those other ideas. I guess the fundamental problem comes down to mass. The more you have, e.g. via adding plates, the more fuel you need to carry, which is also probably adding mass.

    Given where we are now, the best bet is probably to send out automated ships that don’t need all the extra mass for life support and such. Then when we find a viable planet to colonize, we send people (or the appropriate genetic material) on a one-way trip.

    From a SF plot point of view, you could run with one of these ideas and then have the science drive the plot. I’m thinking maybe a small crew in a deep space scouting mission (or maybe just in the solar system). The long, spinning cable could act as a massive antenna that transmits and/or receives a signal from an alien species and the story is all about a first encounter. Perhaps the crew is cryogenically frozen and the ship travels for many years. That would give the aliens time to pick up the signal and intercept them.

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