Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Now More Than Ever: Shields Up!

As scientists and astronomers caution astronauts and airline travelers about the hazards of a recent increase in solar radiation I am reminded of the fact we possess no shield from such things.

Despite our ability to live and work in hazardous environments, short of panels of dense materials, which are expensive to put into orbit, our astronauts have no protection from the perils of solar radiation, cosmic particles or even micro-meteorites. Not to mention larger things like errant pieces of space junk or larger impacts from meteors or asteroids.

Scientists have struggled with the design of energy shielding technology. The very idea, while perfectly plausible in science fiction remains elusive in science fact. Plasma fields have been considered and electro-magnetic energy fields of some sort have also been bantered about. But so far, nothing is close to the testing stage.

As we contemplate sending human beings into deep space, to asteroids, or Mars or beyond, we have to remember that besides an obvious lack of capable spacecraft we also lack the infrastructure to make this happen. Powerful engines are a great idea, but so is artificial gravity, food replicators and of course, shields.

Radiation hazards are likely to increase for air travelers and spacefarers in coming years due to changes in solar activity, researchers say.

Cosmic rays from deep space and high-energy particles from the sun can be hazardous to astronauts and also can expose airline crews and passengers to radiation, as well as damage spacecraft, aircraft and satellites. Solar magnetic fields protect Earth by repelling incoming galactic cosmic rays, but the period of high solar magnetic activity known as the grand solar maximum that persisted throughout the Space Age now appears to be coming to an end, and solar particle levels might start rising at the same time.

Cosmic rays constantly bombard the Earth from deep space, but solar activity is dependent on the sun's regular weather cycle. The sun is currently approaching the peak of its current 11-year cycle, called Solar Cycle 24. That peak will occur in 2013, NASA has said.


Click here to read more about solar radiation risk from Space.com.

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