NASA suggests positioning a magnetic diploe shield at Mars’ L1 Lagrange Point between the sun and planet will stabilize the Martian atmosphere. (Image credit: ITTIZ Wiki Commons)
The theory goes that until about 4.2-billion years ago Mars had a magnetic shield that protected its atmosphere, which was abruptly lost perhaps by a ton of asteroid strikes or other cosmic force. Once that shield was gone, solar winds essentially blew the atmosphere’s outer layer away over the course of 500-million years, leaving a harsh, desolate landscape that’s tough for life to flourish.
Mars’ depleted atmosphere is also a tough challenge for astronaut survival with the planet’s increased radiation and unbreathable air, which could make colonization difficult if not impossible by current technology standards. Considering NASA is planning manned missions to Mars by the 2030’s, they are looking for ways to lessen the danger those astronauts will encounter, and one of the more ambitious proposals consists of positioning a magnetic shield between the sun and the planet.
The concept of giving Mars a protective shield was drawn from research into mini-magnetospheres that would protect spacecraft and their crews.
The idea of creating a planetary magnetosphere was presented by Dr. Jim Green (Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division) and his panel at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop held earlier this month. In the presentation, he explained that by positioning a large magnetic shield in a stable orbit between the planet and the sun (at the L1 Lagrange Point), it would protect the planet from high-energy solar particles, which would help to stabilize the planet’s atmosphere.
That shield would be created using a large dipole to create a massive closed electric circuit large enough to produce an artificial magnetic field for particle and radiation deflection. While it may sound more like science fiction than science fact, the panel stated that they came up with the idea from existing research into miniature magnetospheres that would protect spacecraft and their crews.
To test their theory, researchers from the Ames Research Center, Goddard Flight Center, University of Colorado, Princeton and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory conducted a series of simulations designed using their theory of an artificial magnetic shield. Those simulations returned a positive outcome and that by positioning the dipole at the Lagrange point, it would be successful at blocking solar winds and would, in fact, stabilize the Martian atmosphere.
This means that Mars would gain roughly half of Earth’s atmospheric pressure in a matter of years rather than millennia. The shield would help to stabilize the Martian atmosphere by transforming CO2 at the polar caps into a gas, specifically a greenhouse gas, which would in turn heat the planet and melt subsurface ice to create lakes and oceans of liquid water.
Research and testing simulations aside, that’s a pretty bold theory on essentially terraforming a planet on such a short timescale. Years instead of millennia? Dr. Green and his team of researchers plan on studying the simulations to garner a better assessment on just how long it would take. My question is, if it can be done, what’s the cost estimate for producing the shield and getting it deployed?
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