CERN scientists developping magnetic shield for astronauts’ protection against cosmic rays


A team at CERN is working with the European Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S) project to develop a superconducting magnet that could guard astronauts against cosmic radiation during deep-space missions.

For deep space missions to be safe, we need to find out a way to deal with cosmic radiation. As long as we are in the Earth’s atmosphere, this harmful radiation cannot reach us because the magnetosphere itself works as a shield. However, as astronauts have to go beyond the atmosphere, there are growing concerns about safety during long and deep space missions.

Scientists at CERN, or otherwise known as the European Council for Nuclear Research, have recently announced they are working on a solution to this problem. In collaboration with the European Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S) project, CERN is developing a superconducting magnetic shield that can guard astronauts against cosmic rays during deep space missions. SR2S is a Collaborative Project under the Space Theme of the EU Seventh Framework Research Programme. The project started in January 2013 and will end in December 2015. 

Back in April 2014, the CERN Superconductors team announced a world-record current in an electrical transmission line using cables made of the MgB2 superconductor. The team working on the shield will use the same material for the magnet’s superconductor coils in a new configuration, designed to generate a field that’s strong enough to stop harmful space rays from penetrating spacecraft exteriors to harm astronauts and equipment.

“In the framework of the project, we will test, in the coming months, a racetrack coil wound with an MgB2 superconducting tape,” says Bernardo Bordini, coordinator of CERN activity in the framework of the SR2S project. “The prototype coil is designed to quantify the effectiveness of the superconducting magnetic shielding technology.”

The SR2S superconducting shield will provide an intense magnetic field, 3 000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field and will be confined around the space craft. The magnetic fields will extend to about 10 metres in diameter and ionizing particles will be deflected away. Only the most energetic particles will penetrate the superconducting shield but these will contribute the least to the absorbed radiation dose as their flux is negligible. 

Head of EU Project Space Radiation Superconductive Shield (SR2S) Professor Roberto Battiston previously expressed his deep expectations that the SR2S project will solve the issue of radiation protection in three years and has called on his fellow academics in space research to develop the technology to allow astronauts to undertake deep space missions. “This situation is critical. According to our present knowledge only a very small fraction of NASA’s active astronauts are suitable to stay on the ISS for a one-year mission regardless of the fact that the exposure to radiation is two times less than the exposure during deep space travel,” he says.

There are other challenges to deal with before a spacecraft shield can be built. But the developers plan to test the first magnetic shield in the coming months, according to Bordini.

Sources: CERN, SR2S

Featured image: Astronaut Barry Wilmore. Credit: NASA/ISS.

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  1. This is good, but they need to stink BIGGER. We need magnetic field generators that can shield space ships, stations, and eventually the Moon and Mars. Those cold rocky worlds have no magnetic field to protect them from the solar wind; so any attempts at terraforming will hampered by the atmosphere we make being blown away. Artificial magnetic field, covering thousands or millions of square kilometers, are essential. If we gave the moon a magnetic field as strong as the Earth’s. we could build it an atmosphere an biosphere.

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