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  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

Podcast 79 - The Goonhilly Visit and Magnetospheres on Spaceships

Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition.

Isaac Asimov

Can an artificial miniature magnetosphere be used to protect spacecraft

Radiation hazard

On earth, the radiation hazards that you come across are generally related to the radioactive decay of heavy elements like radium and uranium releasing gamma rays and x-rays. However, out in space, it is a completely different story and it's one of the major obstacles to space travel beyond the Earth.

The extreme forces found at the centre of our own Sun and further afield from black holes, pulsars, quasars and supernova explosions can accelerate protons, and even heavier nuclei, like that of Iron, to ridiculous speeds and energies, which as they slam into human bodies are, of course, extremely bad for you. The astronauts of the Apollo era saw these as blinding flashes when one of these high energy particles hit the back of their retina. It is not just the humans that suffer and it plays havoc with electronics and solar panels and other hardware.


So how do we protect ourselves from the galactic cosmic rays and the highly variable solar particles from solar flares etc which are an ever-present hazard in space?

In the 1950s, from Explorer 1 onwards, scientists started to fully appreciate how Earth protects itself from these deadly rays via its own magnetosphere, life on earth may be impossible without. Since this discovery many schemes have been put forward to use a similar “active” shielding for spacecraft, much like that of the Earth's magnetic field, to deflect these dangerous cosmic rays. But until now they have all seemed to be totally impractical, expensive and bulky.


In all these past studies it was assumed that incoming cosmic charged particles were deflected or reflected using simple charged particle dynamics in a vacuum. The charged particles slowdown or are accelerated by electric fields or bent around magnetic field lines.

In a new study, Ruth Bamford and her colleagues at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory have looked at a far more complicated system and treated the solar winds and cosmic winds as a plasma instead of individual high energy particles. This is analogous to treating the cosmic wind more like a river than a sandblaster. Although this technique is incredibly complicated it has yielded some interesting conclusions. Most importantly, the study points out that the effectiveness of mini-magnetospheres as radiation protection shields needs to be reconsidered, and not simply dismissed based on outdated assumptions.

In the lab and out in space

The team have validated there experiments in the laboratory as solar wind tunnels in computer simulations and also there are some interesting validations in space.

Incredibly there are naturally occurring mini magnetic spheres on the moon and these create an interesting effect where the colour of the regolith is actually maintained over many millennia because it is protecting the ground from this solar radiation. Data from both the Chinese Chang’e 2 and the Indian Chhandrayaan 1 have revealed these “Lunar Swirls” in glorious detail, and showing these relatively weak phenomena are quite capable of providing a tranquil haven from the solar wind

Based on a spacecraft design by Mark G Benton in an AIAA publication from 2011, the team could show that for a basic system you would need the requirements of about 20 kilowatts of onboard power being directed to superconducting Magnetic coils that would weigh, including the Cooling, about 3 tonnes. This would only reduce the particle Flux by about 20%. However, from the new information in the study the team think this could be greatly enhanced by pumping plasma into the protective bubble and then up to 90% of the particles would be excluded and deflected

Time to look again

The scientists have concluded that the use of active deflector shielding for radiation in space may be finally coming of age. It's a field that may have been ignored because of the over-simplistic models used before to work out the power requirements to deflect these dangerous particles. The study uses a much more complicated interaction model but shows the technique to be more efficient, This combined with the great progress in the last 10 years of many convergent technologies such as superconducting technology, liquid deposition, multi-layer coated conductor films etc may lead to a totally practical construction within the next 10 years of a fully functioning active deflector shield.

Although more work is needed to understand these very complex interactions, it is clear that if humanity is going to go into space we absolutely do need active radiation shielding.

Listener letters

After listening to your last podcast I thought you might be interested in seeing some photos I've taken of the X-37 over the last week or so. No special equipment, just pointing my phone out the window and hitting the shutter button at the right time. Keep up the good work!



Ariane Space having a bit of a rough ride

  • Abu Dhabi-based YahSat is to make a $108 million insurance claim on its Al Yah-3/YahSat-3 satellite, which was placed into the wrong orbit by Arianespace on January 26th

  • 43 per cent loss of revenue as the satellite is not expected to reach its actual orbit position until mid-June and is unlikely to achieve its intended 15-year design life as it uses fuel to get there.

  • An Ariane 5 launch of the hefty 5.9 tonne GSAT-11 satellite has been cancelled after an unexplained problem with GSAT-6. ISRO is trying to recover GSAT-6, that went silent after its March 29 launch. (Big problems for private broadband and ISRO

  • Arianespace said its next mission won’t be until July when another Ariane 5 is scheduled to launch four Galileo navigation.

  • OneWeb has shifted the debut launch for its satellite megaconstellation to the fourth quarter of the year., The startup’s first launch of 10 satellites (of the initial 900 satellittes) aboard an Arianespace Soyuz rocket was scheduled for this month, but was pushed out toward the end of the year to allow for more testing and to incorporate improved components in the final spacecraft design

China Space

China is developing a Long March launch vehicle with a reusable first stage that could have its trial launch as early as 2020, according to Long Lehao of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), The Long March 8 medium-lift launcher, designs for vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL), similar to the method employed by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. This is being framed by some as a way of testing Spacex’s claims that costs are reduced.

Private Space - Blue Origin

  • Blue Origin flew its New Shepard system for the eighth time on Sunday, launching from West Texas at about noon local time.

  • 10-minute flight, the capsule reached a record height of 106 kilometers, and both the booster and capsule landed safely

  • The ironically named Ariane Cornell, repeatedly discussed the customer experience. customers will fly into West Texas on a Friday, spend a day of "fun" flight training on Saturday, and then the launch into space itself on Sunday.

  • Will begin flights with "test passengers" by the end of 2018, with commercial service beginning next year.

  • Blue Origin has begun flying commercial payloads

  • Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2 (SFEM-2) NASA

  • Schmitt Space Communicator (SC-1x) Solstar

  • providing commercial Wi-Fi access to in-space users

  • Daphnia University of Bayreuth /DLR

  • The Daphnia experiment investigates the effects of microgravity on gene expression and the cytoskeleton of daphnia water fleas

  • EQUIPAGE Otto von Guericke University / DLR

  • motion of macroscopic rod shaped grains

  • EUPHORIE University of Duisburg-Essen

  • phenomenon of photophoresis, the interaction of light on solid particles suspended in a gas


  • SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft may not become operational until 2020

"The contractors have had difficulty executing aggressive schedules."

  • The assessment of large projects at NASA, published on Tuesday by the US Government Accountability Office, found that certification of the private spacecraft for flying astronauts to the International Space Station may be delayed to December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing.

  • To become certified for operational missions, each company must complete one uncrewed flight and one crewed mission.

  • Optimistic: Boeing : uncrewed test flight of Starliner in August 2018 and with astronauts in November. SpaceX:Dragon in August, crewed mission in December

  • Tech difficulties SPACEX

  • composite overwrap pressure vessels that led to a catastrophic accident during fueling of the Falcon 9

  • company's changes to the Merlin engines to be used in the Block 5 design of the Merlin rocket. Due to cracks that were “unacceptable risk for human spaceflight,"

  • Tech difficulties Boeing

  • Starliner spacecraft has tumbled in simulations. Boeing hopes to put these concerns to rest with a pad abort flight test

  • heat shield, which protects the parachutes during re-entry but may damage the parachutes as it is pulled away from the spacecraft

NASA TEST GAO Government accountability office

The cost and schedule performance of the NASA major projects has deteriorated, and the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years of assessing major NASA projects


  • NASA has ceased work on its only lunar rover, the Resource Prospector, raising concern among some scientists about how "serious" the space organization is about fulfilling President Trump's recent vow to send astronauts to the moon

  • NASA said it is still "planning a series of progressive robotic missions to the lunar surface," but will look to the commercial space industry to complete the mission

  • The cancellation of NASA's Resource Prospector project comes just a few months after President Trump touted U.S. space policy and signed a directive in December ordering NASA to pursue sending American astronauts back to the moon.

  • Is this lining up the next administration to cancel the moon and re-go for mars?

ESA and NASA to investigate bringing martian soil to Earth

The statement signed 26th april at the ILA Berlin air show by ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker, and NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, outlines the potential roles each space agency could fulfil and how they can offer mutual support.

  • Bringing Mars to Earth is no simple undertaking—it would require at least three missions from Earth and one never-been-done-before rocket launch from Mars.

  1. NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover, is set to collect surface samples in pen-sized canisters as it explores the Red Planet. Up to 31 canisters will be filled and readied for a later pickup – geocaching gone interplanetary. And ESA’s ExoMars rover, which is also set to land on Mars in 2021, will be drilling up to two meters below the surface to search for evidence of life.

  2. small fetch rover would land nearby and retrieve the samples in a martian search-and-rescue operation. This rover would bring the samples back to its lander and place them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle – a small rocket to launch the football-sized container into Mars orbit

  3. third launch from Earth would provide a spacecraft sent to orbit Mars and rendezvous with the sample containers. Once the samples are safely collected and loaded into an Earth entry vehicle, the spacecraft would return to Earth, release the vehicle to land in the United States, where the samples will be retrieved and placed in quarantine for detailed analysis by a team of international scientists.

  • The results of the mission studies will be presented at ESA’s council at ministerial level in 2019 for a decision to continue developing these missions.

Photo’s in Space news

26 April 2018

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has returned the first images of the Red Planet from its new orbit.

As reported, The spacecraft arrived in a near-circular 400 km altitude orbit a few weeks ago ahead of its primary goal to seek out gases that may be linked to active geological or biological activity on Mars.

The orbiter’s Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, CaSSIS, took the stunning image, which features part of an impact crater, during the instrument’s test period. The camera was activated on 20 March and was tested for the start of its main mission on 28 April.

The image captures a 40 km-long segment of Korolev Crater located high in the northern hemisphere. The bright material on the rim of the crater is ice.

The image is assembled from three images in different colours that were taken almost simultaneously on 15 April.

“We aim to fully automate the image production process,” says Nick Thomas University of Bern . “Once we achieve this, we can distribute the data quickly to the science community for analysis.”


2 May Long March 4C Taiyuan LA-9

CASC Gaofen 5


Low Earth (SSO)

Earth observation

5 May 11:10-13:05 Atlas V 401 Vandenberg SLC-3E

ULA - InSight


Martian Surface

Mars lander

12th mission of the Discovery program. Mars lander mission dedicated to geological and seismological studies of the planet, NASA’s next mission to Mars, Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight), is scheduled to launch Saturday, May 5, on a first-ever mission to study the heart of Mars. Coverage of prelaunch and launch activities begins Thursday, May 3, on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

6 May Long March 3B/E Xichang

CASC Apstar 6C

APT Satellite Holdings



7 May 20:00-22:25 Falcon 9 Block 5, Kennedy LC-39A,

SpaceX Bangabandhu-1




First launch of a Falcon 9 Block 5 first-stage booster, serial number B1046. It is planned to recover the booster.


Space Fact

the distribution of galaxies in space is close to uniform when averaged over sufficiently large scales, with no observable boundary or edge

Zone of avoidance, region characterized by an apparent absence of galaxies near the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy and caused by the obscuring effect of interstellar dust. It was so called by the American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble. The zone of avoidance is entirely a local Milky Way Galaxy effect. Surveys in the infrared and radio regions of the electromagnetic spectrum have shown that many external galaxies lie beyond it. The mass concentration known as the Great Attractor lies within it.

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