Superconducting Magnetic Bubble To Protect Astronauts From Radiation

Using fields of force to accomplish goals in space is a favorite device of science fiction authors. In Larry Niven's award-winning 1970 novel Ringworld, protection against the harsh environmental hazards of space is provided by a hybrid system consisting of a General Products hull and the Slaver stasis field. The General Products hull is an example of a "passive" or material shielding; the hull is transparent to visible light and impervious to electromagnetic energy and matter in any form. The Slaver stasis field creates an area in which time does not pass; since time stands still, no damage can be done to the material occupying the space protected by the field.

Former astronaut Jeffery Hoffman is proposing a different sort of hybrid system to protect future astronauts; on long voyages through the solar system they will be exposed to lethal doses of radiation from cosmic rays. He has recieved funding from NASA through NIAC (NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) to research the idea of a superconducting magnetic radiation shielding system to supplement (or replace) traditional passive shielding.


(From Magnetic Bubble)

The idea of using a magnetic field to shield a craft from radiation is not new; as Dr. Hoffman points out "the Earth has been doing it for billions of years!" Using magnetic shielding was proposed in the late 1960's, but not pursued after plans for further space exporation were scrapped.

Two types of radiation need to be addressed, according to William S. Higgins, an engineering physicist who works on radiation safety at Fermilab, the particle accelerator near Chicago, IL:

  • Solar flare protons (which would come in bursts following a solar flare)
  • Galactic cosmic rays (a continuous background radiation)
The easiest way to protect against this radiation is to absorb it. However, such shielding can be massive, and cosmic rays can interact with the shielding and create secondary charged particles, worsening the situation. The primary benefit of using magnetic shielding is to save on the mass required for traditional absorption technologies. The mass of the spacecraft, which must be lifted off from the Earth and placed in orbit, directly drives the cost of space systems. Reducing the amount of mass would make space exploration more affordable and therefore more sustainable over the long term.

Hoffman believes that the best solution may be a hybrid system using both a magnetic field and some passive absorbtion shielding. “That’s the way the Earth does it,” Hoffman explained, “and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do that in space.”

A related experiment, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), is scheduled to be attached to the outside of the International Space Station and search for different types of cosmic rays. This experiment will be a practical test of maintaining the magnetic field strength and the near-absolute zero temperatures of this kind of system in space.

Phase I research studies the shielding efficiency of the baseline design, and would begin conceptual systems design. Phase II would provide a detailed comparison of magnetic shielding with traditional passive absorption technologies, and detail how to integrate the magnetic shield into a spacecraft.

If you are interested in another NASA proposal that was presaged in science fiction, see NASA's New Radiation Shielding First Proposed By John W. Campbell In 1936. Read more at Magnetic Bubble Could Protect Astronauts and Use of Superconducting Magnet Technology for Astronaut Radiation Protection (pdf).

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