Space travel comes with many risks, and as astronauts prepare for longer journeys deeper into our solar system, those risks will only grow. A European partnership seeks to mitigate one of the most harmful: cancer-causing radiation.
The European Union’s Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S) is researching and developing magnetic force fields to shield astronauts from radiation. The SR2S program, which was founded in 2013, is made up of seven partners, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN.
The video below explains how superconducting magnets would create a protective force field and how it would work:
Radiation in space comes from a variety of sources, but what SR2S seeks to prevent (and where other measures fail) is the negative effects of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) and solar energetic particles (SEPs). While SEPs come from our sun, GCRs originate outside of our solar system and are created by phenomena such as supernovae, according to NOAA.
Do we have to worry about GCRs and SEPs here on Earth?
On most places on Earth, we don’t have to fret about cancer-causing particles from space because Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field shield us from them. NOAA explains that on most places on Earth, humans are safe, however the Earth’s magnetic field affords little protection at the poles or above 55 degrees magnetic latitude.
What is magnetic latitude, and why does it matter?
Magnetic latitude and geographic latitude vary because the Earth’s magnetic poles are not located at the same place as the geographic poles. The Earth’s magnetic poles move over time whereas geography is less conducive to shifts. This causes a difference in the two latitudes, and when discussing the magnetic field of the Earth, magnetic latitude matters more in understanding how to stay safe from radiation. According to NOAA, “This constant shower of GCR particles at high latitudes can result in increased radiation exposures for aircrew and passengers at high latitudes and altitudes.” So yes, we have to worry about Earth-bound air travelers, but the danger is greatly increased for those far away from our planet. Missions to the moon, asteroids and even Mars will require this protection.
Just how much radiation is out there?
NASA’s Curiosity Rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector reported alarming findings in its collecting of data between December 2011 and July 2012. According to the readings, an astronaut on Mars would be bombarded with as much radiation in a day as a human on Earth would experience in a year, says The Guardian.
That radiation also causes problems for astronauts and their hearts, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Astronauts who flew on the Apollo missions — deep space missions — were five times more likely to die from heart disease than astronauts who had never been to space, the study found. And the Apollo astronauts were four times more likely to die from heart disease than astronauts who had flown only as high as "low Earth orbit." The deep-space missions traveled beyond the Earth's magnetosphere, exposing those astronauts to higher levels of radiation.
Are today’s astronauts protected?
Contemporary astronauts are already protected in modern spacecraft, but the technology being utilized now will not stand up to lengthier missions. Current spacecraft technology includes passive shielding, which involves the use of physical materials to create a barrier between astronauts and radiation. Active shielding, on the other hand, uses electric or magnetic fields to divert harmful particles. Passive shields would not work in deep space travel because they're too large and too cumbersome, not to mention expensive. Adding just 2.2 pounds to a spacecraft results in a $15,000 increase to the overall cost of the mission, according to SR2S. To make long-distance space travel both safe and economically feasible, efficient solutions are required. SR2S is working on an elegant solution in the form of magnetic cables.
Magnesium diobride (MgB2) could be used to create the force field. Italian company Columbus Superconductors, one of the partners in the SR2S project, has used MgB2 cables and wires in a variety of ways, from medical applications to magnetic levitation systems for transportation. In theory, these cables could be attached to a spacecraft creating a superconducting magnetic “force field” that would protect astronauts on their journey.
The term “force field” might sound like science fiction, but the lines between science and science fiction are being blurred as innovators like SR2S bring seemingly fantastical solutions to reality.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in January 2016.