Protection against radiation in space is one of the foremost problems in human deep space exploration. As governments and private enterprises are gearing towards human exploration beyond Earth orbit, the issue of space radiation has taken center stage. Beyond the shield of the Earth’s magnetosphere, astronauts in deep space will be exposed to high energy Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) and lower energy Solar Energetic Particles (SEP), both of which increase the chance of cancer, affect the central nervous system and might cause other degenerative diseases. So, any future human travel in deep space needs to solve this problem to be feasible.

– Space Radiation 

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Several space agencies and research institutions around the world are conducting research into spacecraft shielding technologies. These can be categorized into two basic types. Passive shielding involves the use of some material that will absorb incoming radiation. But they become impractically massive for shielding against GCRs and would also break up the GCR into harmful secondary radiation. Active shielding uses electric or magnetic fields to deflect radiation and would be effective against both GCR and SEP.

Some of the leading work in active radiation shielding is being undertaken by the Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S). It is an EU-funded project whose aim is “to develop, validate and increase the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of the most critical technologies related to a magnetic shielding system for protecting astronauts’ lives during long duration space missions.” The project, started in January 2013, has received funding under the EU Seventh Framework Research Programme – Space Theme and will run until December 2015. The participating organizations include Italian Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), Compagnia Generale per lo Spazio (CGS SpA), Columbus Superconductors, Thales Alenia Space – Italia S.p.A. (TAS-I), Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA), CERN, and Carr Communications.

The project is developing a shielding system powered by a superconducting magnet that will deflect radiation, similar to the Earth’s magnetosphere. Superconducting magnets generate strong magnetic fields compared to traditional magnetic materials. But superconductors work only at extremely low temperatures. SR2S plans to overcome this problem by using a new superconductor, magnesium diboride MgB2, which can operate at -263 Celsius and thus doesn’t require liquid helium cooling.

– SR2S introduction animation 

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The SR2S project has conducted a study on the feasibility of a superconducting magnetic shield, comparing the various possible magnetic configurations and analyzing its merits as well the challenges of this approach. It has also developed some key enabling technologies required to build such a spacecraft shield. Other major milestones include an assessment of the requirements for a super conducting magnetic radiation shield and a realistic configuration to be used in the short term to design demonstration units. Project partners have also conducted review, analysis and selection of the requirements on radiation doses for exploration travel in deep space.

– SR2S introduction by Professor Roberto Battiston  

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For more information, please visit the project website at http://www.sr2s.eu/

About the author

Ramasamy Venugopal

Ramasamy Venugopal

Born and brought up in India, Ramasamy has a bachelor's in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Anna University, Chennai and a Master in Space Studies from the International Space University, Strasbourg. He has experience in the telecommunication industry having worked at Ericsson and Verizon India. His major interests are Astronomy, Planetary science, space advocacy and outreach.