London, Nov 4 : Scientists have come up with a practical solution for shielding astronauts from deadly solar storms, which may bring plans for a manned mission to Mars one step closer to reality.
Though putting a man on the Red Planet has been the dream of scientists ever since space travel was first envisaged, the greatest challenge facing them has been how to protect astronauts and their space ships from solar storms.
Solar storms are radioactive clouds of particles that shred human DNA and destroy electronic instruments.
Now, according to a report in the Telegraph, British researchers believe they have come up with a practical solution by mimicking the Earth's own protection - a mini magnetic field that deflects the fatal particles.
The British scientists, based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and universities of York and Strathclyde, have applied kinetic theory, borrowed from experiments into nuclear fusion, to the problem.
They have tested it in the laboratory with a model space craft and discovered that it offers almost total protection.
"Solar storms or winds are one of the greatest dangers of deep space travel," said Professor Bob Bingham, a theoretical physicist at the University of Strathclyde.
"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," he added.
According to Bingham, "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."
"This system creates a Magnetic Field Bubble that would deflect the dangerous radiation away from the spacecraft," he added.
Bingham said that the team was currently patenting its technology and could have a working full size prototype within five years.
The idea of a "mini-magnetosphere" has been around since the 1960s, but it was thought impractical because it was believed that only a very large - more than 100km wide - magnetic bubble could possibly work.
This would involve enormous amounts of energy and massive machinery.
But, the British team, has come up with a system that would be about the size of a playground roundabout and use the same energy as a kettle.
They envisage two "mini-magnetospheres" being housed in two outrider satellites in front of the space craft that when a storm approaches would switch on the shield and deflect the deadly rays.
According to Dr Ruth Bamford, one of the lead researchers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, "These initial experiments have shown promise and that it may be possible to shield astronauts from deadly space weather."