A superconducting shield for astronauts

A team at CERN is working with the European Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S) project to develop a superconducting magnet that could protect astronauts from cosmic radiation during deep-space missions. The idea is to create an active magnetic field to shield spacecraft from high-energy particles.

The superconductor coils for the prototype magnet will be made of magnesium diboride (MgB2), the same type of conductor that was developed in the form of wire for the High Luminosity Cold Powering project at CERN's Large Hadron Collider

“In the framework of the project, we will test, in the coming months, a racetrack coil wound with an MgB2 superconducting tape,” says Bernardo Bordini, coordinator of CERN activity in the framework of the SR2S project. “The prototype coil is designed to quantify the effectiveness of the superconducting magnetic shielding technology.”

During long-duration trips in space and in the absence of the magnetosphere that protects people living on Earth, astronauts are bombarded with high-energy cosmic rays that might cause a significant increase in the probability of various types of cancers. Because of this, exploration missions to Mars or other distant destinations will only become possible if an effective solution for adequately shielding astronauts is found. “If the prototype coil we will be testing produces successful results, we will have contributed important information to the feasibility of the superconducting magnetic shield,” says Amalia Ballarino, Superconductors and Superconducting Devices section leader.

There are many more challenges to overcome before a spacecraft shield can be built: various possible magnetic configurations need to be tested and compared and other key enabling technologies need to be developed. The MgB2 superconductor seems to be very well placed to take part in this challenging adventure as, among its many advantages, there is also its ability to operate at higher temperatures (up to about 25 K) thus allowing the spacecraft to have a simplified cryogenic system. Watch this “space”!

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