Elena D’Onghia is known for her research on the structure of the Milky Way and our cosmic neighborhood. But the galaxy and dark matter astrophysicist now has an entirely different project, one that could prove beneficial to a space civilization: generating portable magnetic fields to deflect potentially deadly space radiation away from astronauts. “I really wanted to do something on the side that would help society more, something where there was no solution yet. So we started thinking about this idea of shielding spacecraft from radiation,” she says.
His idea, which looks like a Magneto superpower, is one of 17 projects that received funding last month from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), a program that invests in high-risk, high-reward proposals. Each Phase 1 project, such as D’Onghia’s outreach concept, received $175,000 each for a nine-month study, while the five proposals that advanced to Phase 2 each received $600,000 for a period two years. Within a few decades, a few of them could be mature enough to be part of the next generation of space missions. “Their work is really about changing the future,” says Ron Turner, senior science advisor for the NIAC program and analyst at the nonprofit Analytic Services, Inc. “We’re here looking for innovative ideas that could sort of change the way space and aeronautics is over.
Scientists like D’Onghia explore far-flung ideas, but they also need to demonstrate their feasibility and benefits, Turner says. Program funding helps people study every aspect of their proposal in more detail to see exactly what needs to be done to make it a reality. Proposals do not need to be targeted at NASA; for example, one of the projects funded in the most recent round is a concept for defending Earth against a killer asteroid on a collision course with our planet. Others include sending a space balloon to Venus and creating a collapsible space station.
D’Onghia’s magnetic field project grew out of coffee shop conversations a few years ago with Paolo Desiati, his fellow physicist at the University of Wisconsin. They wanted to tackle a futuristic health issue: When a spacecraft heads for Mars, it will be bombarded with charged particles from the sun and cosmic rays that can come from much further away. During a journey of approximately nine months, astronauts will be exposed to a significant amount of radiation, causing cell damage and increasing their risk of cancer. Even if the astronauts don’t linger on the Red Planet and return home quickly, their exposure will put them above NASA’s recommended radiation limit throughout their careers. “Until we solve this problem, we are not going to Mars,” says D’Onghia.
They came up with a concept called CREW HaT, short for “Cosmic Radiation Extended Warding using the Halbach Torus”, a device made up of magnetic coils with superconducting strips that could be installed on the outside of a spacecraft. Their design includes eight angled panels arranged in a circle, each containing magnets, to ward off at least half of the cosmic rays that strike with energies of up to 1 billion electron-volts. (It’s actually not a lot of energy, but the health risks add up over time.) The magnetic field created by the panels would alter the trajectories of incoming charged particles so they don’t hit the body passengers inside. CREW HaT, which is a form of active shielding, would be combined with passive shielding – building spacecraft out of materials designed to absorb certain radiation.
Their goal is to design a version that isn’t too heavy and doesn’t consume too much power, so it can be launched with a spacecraft like NASA’s Orion or SpaceX’s Starship and ignited outside the magnetosphere. protector of the Earth. Before they can build a prototype, their next steps are to expand their calculations to include higher-energy cosmic rays, to see if the technology could be used to deflect them without adding too much weight to the device. “That’s the challenge. Previous concepts turned out to be extremely cumbersome and unrealistic, but they paved the way for new ideas,” says Desiati.