Astronomy

NASA Plans Force Field Project for Moon



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Disasters happen in space. The Soviets lost Cosmonauts and NASA lost astronauts during the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. But forward thinking is something NASA normally excels at and now the US space agency is taking a second look at an old idea: creating a force field to protect space travelers from deadly blasts of radiation.

Not a Star Trek type shield

The force field NASA envisions will not be a shield like that depicted in the popular science fiction series Star Trek.

Instead, NASA believes it can develop an electrically-charged bubble that has the same charge as approaching radiation. In theory, at least, like charges repel, so the idea may work.

Some type of force field would have to be employed to deal with radiation in space. On Earth, radiation is dealt with easily, but the solution requires a lot of mass and is cumbersome. An example are reactor cores in nuclear power plants. The radiation is simply blocked by materials that can absorb it like a sponge. This bricks and lead sheets are used.

But that's not too practical aboard spaceships.

Solutions may be out there other than an exotic force field, however they all have their own particular pitfalls. Currently, materials engineers are testing a variety of substances already known to shield humans from radiation exposure. Those materials include special metals, exotic resins and plastics, and even liquified gases such as hydrogen.

The sun: a spaceman's greatest enemy

The greatest risk of exposure to radiation comes from the same source that makes possible all life on Earth: the sun.

The sun produces streams of highly radioactive, electrically charged particles. Exposure to them during a period of solar storms when intensity significantly increases can be lethal. Something like a force field shield that could be turned on and off as needed is the most eloquent solution—if it's practical and possible.

A science fiction fantasy?

Although many scientists think the force field concept is not much more than a science fiction fantasy, two scientists working with the ASRC Aerospace Corporation located at NASA's Kennedy Space Center think it's possible.

John Lane and Charles Buhler have both received funding from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) to study the idea of an electrostatic force field. NASA's NIAC exists to explore some of the wilder concepts scientists and engineers brainstorm.

"Using electric fields to repel radiation was one of the first ideas back in the 1950s, when scientists started to look at the problem of protecting astronauts from radiation," Buhler explained to Patrick L. Barry whose article appears on NASA's Science News site. "They quickly dropped the idea, though, because it seemed like the high voltages needed and the awkward designs that they thought would be necessary (for example, putting the astronauts inside two concentric metal spheres) would make such an electric shield impractical."

Inflatable balloons

The two scientists think inflatable balloons composed of the right material can be electrically charged and repel incoming radiation. They will be testing a variety of approaches using that basic concept.

Others shake their heads and express skepticism over the project. As Barry points out: "…an electrostatic shield on the Moon is susceptible to being short-circuited by floating moondust, which is itself charged by solar ultraviolet radiation. Solar wind blowing across the shield can cause problems, too. Electrons and protons in the wind could become trapped by the maze of forces that make up the shield, leading to strong and unintended electrical currents right above the heads of the astronauts."

But Lane and Buhler are undeterred. They know if they're successful the technology will save lives in the future.

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