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The Future on Mars: Generating Local Magnetic Shields to Protect Astronauts from Radiation in Mars

Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, has been the subject of fiction, scientific research and engineering since the 1800s. It is the most accessible place for life other than on Earth, making it one of the most scientifically interesting locations in our solar system.

In recent years, multiple organizations – both public and private – have committed to not only continuing the exploration of Mars with manned missions, but also setting up human colonies on the red planet. “Such an ambitious endeavor involves many risks and challenges,” says Victoria Coverstone, professor and chair of the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “There are many factors that need to be considered to develop the appropriate technology to ensure the success of an interplanetary mission.”

One such factor is Mars’s thin atmosphere. On Earth, the atmosphere protects humans from the blasts of heat and radiation emanating from the sun. It also prevents extreme temperatures differences between daytime and nighttime. On Mars, however, the atmosphere is very thin, allowing cosmic radiation to penetrate to the surface. “Earth and Mars used to have similar atmospheres, but about four billion years ago, Mars lost its magnetic field and solar winds have been stripping away the Martian atmosphere ever since,” explains Coverstone.

With no atmospheric protection from cosmic radiation, the surface of Mars presents an extreme hazard for crews of interplanetary missions. Cosmic radiation can cause radiation sickness, increase the lifetime risk for cancer, disrupt the central nervous system, and trigger degenerative diseases. Cosmic radiation can also heavily damage sensitive electronic equipment.

Currently, astronauts and electronic equipment are protected from radiation in satellites using passive absorbers – a combination of materials that serve as a buffer – that sufficiently block cosmic radiation; however, passive absorbers would need to be massive to sufficiently block enough radiation for a colony to survive.

Coverstone recently received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the United States Department of Defense, to investigate how to generate an active reflector of radiation that can adequately shield humans from cosmic radiation. “Recent research has concluded that there are remnants of the original magnetic field scattered throughout Mars,” says Coverstone. “These remnants, which are called local mini-magnetospheres, can be enhanced using superconducting loops to sufficiently block enough radiation for a colony on Mars to survive.”

The active reflector consists of a continuous current of electricity running through an array of loops made of superconductors – metals that can conduct electricity without resistance if cooled below a certain temperature. Once set in motion, the electrical current will flow continuously, producing a magnetic field that strengthens the local mini-magnetospheres to equivalent to Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, reducing radiation exposure to safe quantities.

“The importance of this project lies in its potential to allow a human colony to survive on Mars,” Coverstone says. “The ability to generate localized magnetic fields equivalent to that of Earth’s is crucial to the design and implementation of colonies on Mars. Without it, long-duration human habitation on Mars is unviable.”

The technology developed by this project can also be used in space, to protect space assets such as satellites. It also has applications here on Earth. The superconducting loops can be used to protect critical sites, such as military bases from nuclear radiation attacks or accidents from nuclear power generation plants.

Coverstone and her research project were featured on Polyplexus, a research and development environment that serves as a global platform designed to accelerate access to scientific evidence, hypothesis development, research proposal generation and sponsor engagement. Coverstone is one of the scientists and engineers engaging in this online platform during its pilot stage.

The research project is titled, “Generating Local Magnetic Shields through Superconducting Loops.”

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