04 November 2008

Mr. Worf, Shields up!

It's straight out of Star Trek.

A powerful magnetic shield may be able to deflect dangerous solar radiation from spacecraft traveling to the moon and other planets, a new study says.

Magnets tested in a recent laboratory experiment could divert radiation safely, a discovery that's "like Star Trek coming to life," said lead author Ruth Bamford, a plasma physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K....

Until recently, however, scientists thought shielding spacecraft would require an impractically large magnet — one capable of generating a field 60 miles (100 kilometers) or more across.

"We said, Hang on," Bamford explained. "People are small. We only need to make a little hole in the solar wind."

To test the idea, her team borrowed laboratory equipment used for work in fusion power, a process that also involves magnets. The scientists placed a small magnetized object — a simulated "spaceship" — into a flow of supersonic plasma, which consists of charged particles.

"You don't expect experiments to work first time," she said of the research, which is published today in the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion. "But this did. It was very clear that it was doing its job."

In other news, there's the Harry Potter invisibility cloak.

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