If people ever venture far beyond Earth, they'll face such potentially fatal hazards as solar flares and cosmic rays. In recent years, engineers in Great Britain have experimented with electromagnet "shields" like those that protect the starship Enterprise from exploding stars and grouchy Klingons. [EISCAT]
When your starship's in trouble, just remember two words: Shields up! They always seem to get the job done.
Real space travelers don't have to worry about phasers or blasters or supernovae -- at least not yet -- but they do face some serious hazards. Radiation and charged particles from the Sun could kill an unprotected astronaut in hours or even minutes. And charged particles from beyond the Sun could do it in months. And so far, the only shielding is extra layers of metal -- a protection that's heavy and expensive.
But researchers in Britain have studied shields that are like those in the realm of fiction: machines that generate a strong magnetic field.
Here on Earth, we're protected from the Sun's occasional nastiness in part by the planet's magnetic field, which deflects the charged particles. And we're protected by the particles from outside the solar system by the Sun's magnetic field.
So the researchers tested a system for creating a magnetic field in the laboratory. They used technology developed for experiments in nuclear fusion -- the process that powers the stars. They generated a magnetic field that could deflect charged particles like water flowing around a pebble in a stream.
Of course, the equipment was heavy and expensive -- not something that you could carry on a trip to Mars. But it shows that, at least in principle, Jim Kirk was right: to protect your spaceship, just raise the shields.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.