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Astronauts on deep-space missions may one day deploy protective magnetic fields similar to those that shelter us from deadly space radiation on Earth, just as they will carry the necessary food and atmosphere.

NASA and its industrial and academic partners are studying ways to use superconducting magnets to generate magnetic fields around deep-space habitats. A promising approach would use coils that “inflate” with their own magnetism to deflect solar-flare protons and galactic cosmic rays that otherwise would restrict human travel time in space.

“The concept of shielding astronauts with magnetic fields has been studied for over 40 years, and it remains an intractable engineering problem,” says Shayne Westover of Johnson Space Center (JSC). “Superconducting magnet technology has made great strides in the past decade.”

Westover is principal investigator on a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant to study high-temperature superconductor technology as an approach to active radiation shielding for astronauts. Under the grant, JSC is working with a company that has expertise in superconducting magnets to gain some definition on just how effective they can be in protecting spaceflight crews.

“Radiation shielding, if it is not at the top of the list, is No. 2,” says Palm Bay, Fla.-based Advanced Magnet Lab President Mark Senti. “They have propulsion figured out, and I'm not trivializing anything. They have solar protection and energy, but if you don't solve radiation shielding, there's no sense in doing engineering everywhere else.”

This problem is a deal breaker for any long duration human space travel. It must be solved. To read more, click here.
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