UK technology's magnetic space future

Superconducting magnet (Scientific Magnetics) UK engineers spent 12 years working on the device, only to see it dropped from the mission late on

It's thought as many as half a million people crammed the roads and beaches outside the Kennedy Space Center to see Endeavour's final launch.

Thousands more had official guest status and got a slightly closer view from inside the spaceport itself. A magnificent morning ascent for the youngest of the Nasa spaceplanes as it began its final mission - the delivery of the $2bn Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) instrument to the International Space Station.

There will, however, be a group of British engineers for whom Monday's lift-off was a bitter-sweet moment. These are the people whose technology got dropped from AMS in the year before launch.

For those not familiar with this story, let me back up and reprise events. They have some potentially fascinating implications for deep space travel.

AMS is one of the most expensive science experiments ever put in space - probably the most expensive.

It has taken a group of 600 or so researchers from 16 nations a total of 17 years to prepare it for flight. It promises some dramatic new insights into the origin and make-up of the cosmos.

AMS will do this by studying the storm of high-energy particles (cosmic rays) that are hurled at Earth from the deepest reaches of the Universe.

Critical to its operation is a very strong magnet. As the particles enter AMS, they will bend through this magnet. How they bend reveals their charge, a fundamental property that says a great deal about the nature of those particles and where they came from.

Shuttle Endeavour Endeavour climbs into the sky, the AMS packed in its payload bay

The UK at a programmatic level never got involved in AMS, presumably because it was a space station project (and the UK doesn't engage with human spaceflight), but one British company was contracted to build the all-important magnet.

Scientific Magnetics (formerly Space Cryomagnetics) of Culham, in Oxfordshire, spent 12 years developing this super-cooled beast, and it was - so the project leaders on AMS told me - a marvel.

It was incredibly powerful and directed its entire field inwards, like an enclosed bubble. From the outside, the magnet appeared as an inert beer can.

This was really important because if you put such a device on a shuttle or a space station and it hasn't been carefully designed, it will start to interact with its surrounding - even try to orientate itself with the Earth's magnetic field. Not what you want on a space vehicle.

But to cut a long story short, the British magnet's super-fluid-helium cooling mechanism meant that it was only ever going to be a short-lived device. And when the space station's life was extended last year to 2020, the AMS project leaders took the decision to remove the UK magnet and replace it with a less powerful, but much longer-lived, Chinese one.

Now, as I say, this is a story with some interesting outcomes.

The British magnet is currently sitting in store at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) where AMS was assembled and tested, and there's a lot of interest in seeing its technology put to other uses.

The first of these is astronaut protection. The cosmic rays that AMS is trying to characterise are particles that also represent a hazard to humans in space.

Ad Astra plasma rocket (Ad Astra) Ad Astra has been running a testbed incorporating British superconducting-magnet technology

When astronauts eventually go beyond the space station - back to the Moon, and on to asteroids and Mars - they will need to shield themselves from these high-energy particles. The idea of using a powerful magnetic field to do this job is being investigated Dr Roberto Battiston, the deputy principal investigator on AMS. He told me:

"We continue to work to understand how this technology could be used for future shielding of astronauts undergoing long exposure, for instance at a Moonbase or on a trip to Mars… because this is by far the most advanced super-conducting magnet-design ever built and completed for a space mission. It is not going to fly but it had everything that would allow it to fly.

"The European Space Agency asked me to submit a proposal for a feasibility study and [Scientific Magnetics] is part of it.

"We would design the magnet in a different way to the AMS one. AMS was designed to have a very strong magnetic field within an inner bore. By modifying the coils and the currents, we can design a magnetic field confined in an external ring surrounding an inner bore that is magnetic-field free. In this internal module will be the habitable part for the astronauts - where they will live. We are talking about something having a diameter of about five to six metres and the length of 10m - surrounded by this magnetic field that is intense enough to bend away cosmic rays coming from deep space."

AMS on ISS. Artist rendering (Nasa) The AMS (left) will sit on the station's truss, or backbone, slightly tilted to look past the giant solar wings

There are immense practicalities to overcome, of course. These special magnets get their strength because they are superconducting. This means running them at cryo-temperatures, which demands a lot of liquid helium.

This has a tendency to boil off over time, limiting the life of your device, which brings us back to AMS. All that said, Professor Battiston is encouraged by the research. He says it should be possible to limit radiation exposure on a Mars flight to something similar to that currently experienced by astronauts on a six-month stay at the space station.

The other big space application for which British magnet technology might be useful is in the plasma rockets that could one day propel all spacecraft.

Professor Roberto Battiston: " far the most advanced super-conducting magnet-design ever built [for space]."

These rely on the motion of highly excited gases, or plasmas, moulded by magnetic fields to provide thrust. Although they don't give the initial big kick you get from chemical combustion, their supreme efficiency means they can go on thrusting for extended periods, achieving far more acceleration per kilogram of fuel consumed. Proponents of plasma rockets say they could dramatically cut the journey time to Mars from months to weeks.

Scientific Magnetics has already produced a superconducting magnet for a testbed at Ad Astra in Texas, the company at the forefront of this propulsion technology.

Steve Harrison from Scientific Magnetics told me:

"These rockets use radio frequency heating to generate the plasma and then the magnets contain the plasma in the same way they do in a tokomak fusion reactor. The magnets are profiled such that they form a sort of nozzle out the back; and because the plasma is expanding and supersonic, it flies out and gives you thrust. For the system Ad Astra has been testing for the last two years, we designed and built the super-conducting magnet."

Similar obstacles to the magnetic shield prevent immediate adoption of the propulsion application as well, especially if the propulsion magnets incorporate cryogenic liquids, but both concepts are definitely worth watching for the future.

Ad Astra plasma rocket concept  (Ad Astra) Magnet technology could provide both radiation shielding and propulsion on future deep-space vehicles
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @ Stewilkins - You are absolutely right - it's Costa Rican flag. There is nothing odd in it , if you know that the founder and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company is Dr. Franklin Chiang-Diaz, former NASA astronaut, naturalized USA citizen, but born in Costa Rica. The company is incorporated in Texas, USA, but has testing and manufacturing branch in Costa Rica as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I understand how and why one would want to deflect cosmic rays away from a manned capsule in space. What I find it harder to understand is, how it would be possible to live in an environment without some sort of magnetism? We are evolved to live in a magnetic environment and surely, the spacecraft will have to mimic some of the magnetic conditions of planet earth? A simple explanation will do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    knowles2 wrote:

    "It nice to think that despite 17 countries being involve with this project they still had to hire out British engineers to do a central piece of the project."

    How did you arrive at that conclusion? It could have been a simple matter of price or the increasingly common, politically correct, practice of catering to foreigners.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    In answer to Post number 19 from Michael: Having more than 400 character's per post would probably put the TV licence bill up by £3.45 per year !

    (I got a grade 4 CSE in Commerce / Business Studies to go with the Physics CSE if you were wondering..... !)


  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    WHY are we limited to 400 character's, it is like trying to say something and have it edited to that stupid twitter mentality of a few words.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    to TheyCallMeTheWonderer
    thanks for beating me to the 'sums' bit!
    I appreciate that I am not the Only person in all of humanity who see's the problem of radiation exposure on deep space craft and other planetary bodies and see a simple and a basic solution It can be done
    Even MRI machines have to have HEAVY shielding to not distort the Earth's magnetic field. So adding one to Mar's = solution!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    One puzzle for me is why they send all the waste material from the space station down - rubbish or radiation shield ? or reaction mass ? stuff it in a balloon tethered, and when you have a solar flare, puts its mass between you and the radiation, water, nitrogen compounds, some metals - wonderful stuff ! more brute force than a magnet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    #6. s chell

    That time lag is why astronauts on a nuclear powered ship would actually get much less radiation than on a chemical powered one. Thats 6 weeks - or less each way for nuclear verses NASA's 18
    months estimate for chemical.
    A Super Orion type machine could do it in as little as 3 days and carry heavy radiation shielding with its multi-thousand ton payload cap. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Yup, so doable in fact that nobody has managed it here on Earth where it is far easier to build.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    13. Xilman
    "...Do the sums...."


    Ignoring superconductivity and using the formula

    B = (μ0 I)/(2πr)

    a normal electromagnet requires 1.5MA current to give a field of 30T (standard for a big superconducting magnet) at 1m.

    Feed this back into the equation with the radius of mars (3500km) you get a field strength of 8.5μT. Earth's field strenth is 3.1μT!

    Totally doable!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Michael, your proposal would work in principle. Unfortunately, Mars is several thousand km across and the magnets described in the article are a few metres across. Do the sums....

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    You need good schools and mankind in many country's seem to want to cut education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Every time I think of it, the lack of a UK manned spaceflight programme annoys me intensely.

    Imagine where we'd be now if They hadn't cancelled Black Arrow!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    They need to improve the pipe coatings used to reduce the amount of coolant that escapes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It nice to see Britain as world leaders.

    It nice to think that despite 17 countries being involve with this project they still had to hire out British engineers to do a central piece of the project.

    An it nice to envision British technology being essential for any Mars missions. Just wondering could not the same magnets be use in fusion reactors.

    why do we only get 400 characters in comm now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Since se are capable of creating strong magnetic fields.
    Send a nuclear powered generator and 3 magnetic field generator's to the Martian poles - a primary, secondary, tert backup at each pole.
    We then artifically generate a magnetic field on Mar's (and any Moon)even if it has to have new generators sent every 50 years, it would prevent further atmospheric loss and make terraforming simplier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Fantastic, one day, hopefully in my lifetime, man will step foot on Mars!

    The UK is doing its part, which is great. We were once a super power of the world, and it is nice to show we still have some of the greatest minds of the 21st century!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Jason is correct. The journeys and time spent on the Moon totalled a maximum of 12 days of exposure. Missions using current technology would take at least a year to go to and from Mars, a significant period of exposure. Considering many Apollo astronauts developed cataracts which NASA attributed to the radiation, I think many astronauts will appreciate this technology!


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