In the last year space agencies in the United States, Europe, China, Japan and India have announced their intention to resume human exploration of the Solar system, beginning with the Moon and perhaps ultimately moving on to Mars. But travel beyond the immediate vicinity of the Earth carries significant risks for astronauts, not the least of which is the exposure to sometimes high levels of radiation. Now a team of scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory are set to construct an experimental magnetic shield that would protect explorers in their journeys between the planets. Dr Ruth Bamford will present this idea in her talk on Wednesday 18 April at the Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting in Preston. 

Cosmic rays and radiation from the Sun itself can cause acute radiation sickness in astronauts and even death. Between 1968 and 1973, the Apollo astronauts going to the moon were only in space for about 10 days at a time and were simply lucky not to have been in space during a major eruption on the sun that would have flooded their spacecraft with deadly radiation. In retrospect Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for Man’ would have looked very different if it had. 

On the International Space Station there is a special thick-walled room to which the astronauts have had to retreat during times of increased solar radiation. However on longer missions the astronauts cannot live within shielded rooms, since such shielding would add significantly to the mass of the spacecraft, making them much more expensive and difficult to launch. It is also now known that the ‘drip-drip’ of even lower levels of radiation can be as dangerous as acute bursts from the sun. 

On the surface of the Earth we are protected from radiation by the thick layers of the atmosphere. And the terrestrial magnetic field extends far into space, acting as a natural ‘force field’ to further protect our planet and deflecting the worst of the energetic particles from the Sun by creating a ‘plasma barrier’. 

Now scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire plan to mimic nature. They will build a miniature magnetosphere in a laboratory to see if a deflector shield can be used to protect humans living on space craft and in bases on the Moon or Mars. 

In order to work, an artificial mini-magnetosphere on a space craft will need to utilise many cutting edge technologies, such as superconductors and the magnetic confinement techniques used in nuclear fusion. 

Thus science is following science fiction once again. The writers of Star Trek realised that any space craft containing humans would need protection from the hazardous effects of cosmic radiation. They envisioned a ‘deflector shield’ spreading out from the Starship Enterprise that the radiation would bounce off. These experiments will help to establish whether this idea could one day become a practical reality. 


Dr Ruth Bamford 
Space Science and Technology Department 
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory 
Tel:  +44 (0)1235 446 517 
Mob: +44 (0)77 87 37 47 50 

Professor Robert Bingham 
Space Science and Technology Department 
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory 
Mobile: 07769657148 

Dr. Mike Hapgood 
Space Science and Technology Department 
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory 
Tel:+44 (1235) 446520 
Mobile: +44 (789) 9908780 

Dr Kieran Gibson 
Sackville Street Building 
University of Manchester 
Manchester M60 1QD 
Tel:+44 (0) 161 306 3927 

Tom Todd 
Culham Science Centre 
Oxfordshire OX14 3DB 
Tel: +44 (0)1235 46 5399 

Luis Gargate 
Centro de Física dos Plasmas 
Instituto Superior Técnico 
1049-001 Lisboa 

Professor Luis Silva 
Sackville Street Building 
University of Manchester 
Manchester M60 1QD 

From 16 to 20 April, Dr Bamford and Professor Hapgood can be contacted via the NAM press office (see above). 

NOTES FOR EDITORS  The 2007 RAS National Astronomy Meeting is hosted by the University of Central Lancashire. It is sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council.

This year the NAM is being held together with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) spring meetings. 2007 is International Heliophysical Year. 

IMAGES:  These will be posted on the RAS NAM website at 


An artificial magnetosphere could be generated around manned space craft en route to the Moon or Mars to protect the occupants from the potentially lethal radiation in space from the Sun. A superconducting ring on board such a space craft could produce a magnetic field, or mini-magnetosphere, similar to the Earth’s, which would create a Star Trek like ‘deflector or plasma shield’.