Man has been to the moon and so far the relatively short jaunt to our satellite has been as far as man has ventured from our own planet. Since the 60's when U.S. astronauts landed on the moon, many have dreamed of sending manned missions to Mars.
Aside from the not inconsequential need for a spaceship capable of making the 18-month journey and being able to supply the astronauts with food and water, other major obstacles to going to Mars are standing in the way of exploration.
A team of British researchers believes that they have defeated one of the major obstacles to the journey: solar storms. The Earth is protected from deadly solar storms by its magnetosphere, which deflects the radioactive particles produced in the storm.
When a spacecraft travels beyond the protective magnetosphere, it is subject to the destructive power of these storms that scientists claim can pop-up quickly and pose severe risk to instruments on the spacecraft and the lives of the astronauts in the spacecraft.
Professor Bob Bingham from the University of Strathclyde told the U.K. newspaper Telegraph, "Solar storms or winds are one of the greatest dangers of deep space travel. If you got hit by one not only would it take out the electronics of a ship but the astronauts would soon take on the appearance of an overcooked pizza. It would be a bit like being near the Hiroshima blast. Your skin would blister, hair and teeth fall out and before long your internal organs would fail. It is not a very nice way to go."
The system Bingham and other researchers developed creates a mini magnetosphere around the spacecraft. The team says that the theory has been tested in the lab on a scale model and provides almost total protection to the ship and occupants inside the vessel.
Designing a mini magnetosphere had previously been dismissed as impossible due to the large amount of equipment and power deemed necessary to create the protective bubble. The researchers were able to develop a prototype system that in its final form would be about the size of a merry-go-round on a playground and require as much energy to operate as a kettle.
Scientists see the system being comprised of two mini magnetosphere-generating satellites housed in outriders in front of the spacecraft. The artificial magnetosphere would not run at all times and would only be fired up when a solar storm was detected.
Another researcher on the project, Dr. Ruth Bamford said, "These initial experiments have shown promise and that it may be possible to shield astronauts from deadly space weather."
Apollo astronauts didn’t have to contend with solar storms during the moon missions. However, some scientists say that on the 18-month trek to Mars astronauts would definitely be exposed to a solar storm. Both the ESA and NASA are planning manned Mars missions by 2050 and say that space weather is the greatest obstacle to deep space travel.