How an Artificial Magnetic Field Could Make Mars Habitable

A new study suggests that humans may possess the technological capabilities to create an artificial magnetic field, or magnetosphere, around Mars. And, the study authors note, if successful, such an artificial magnetic field could help protect future Mars colonists from the deadly radiation spewed out by the Sun, just as the real magnetic field generated by Earth’s core protects its inhabitants.

BACKGROUND RADIATION AND EARTH’S MAGNETIC FIELD

Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field known as the magnetosphere. This protective shell helps shield Earth’s inhabitants from the deadly stream of radiation pouring from our sun known as the solar wind, allowing life to grow and prosper.

Unfortunately for would-be space colonists, Earth’s magnetosphere is generated by the spinning iron core believed to be at the center of our home planet, and such a protective feature is not standard equipment on other planets, including those in our own solar system. This lack of protection is particularly significant on Mars, especially if humans hope to make a permanent settlement on this nearby planet.

Now, a group of researchers has proposed a method to duplicate Earth’s magnetosphere around Mars, potentially bringing its protective effect to those would-be Martian colonists and others hoping to lie somewhere besides Earth.

ANALYSIS: A PLAN SO CRAZY IT JUST MIGHT WORK

“If humanity is ever to consider substantial, long-term colonization of Mars, the resources needed are going to be extensive,” explains the recently published study. “For a long-term human presence on Mars to be established, serious thought would need to be given to terraforming the planet.”

This goal, the research team behind the latest study explains, includes looking at the “practical and engineering challenges that affect the feasibility of creating an artificial magnetic field capable of encompassing Mars.”

Such challenges include figuring out where to locate their proposed magnetic field generator, as well as possible construction strategies for putting it in place. In the case of Mars, they propose a massive system on the surface of the Martian moon Phobos that ionizes that moon’s surface particles and then accelerates those ionized particles in a way that they form a plasma torus along the tight orbit of Phobos.

“The solution with the lowest power, assembly and mass is to create an artificial charged particle ring (similar in form to a ‘radiation belt’), around the planet possibly formed by ejecting matter from one of the moons of Mars (in a fashion similar to that which forms the Jupiter-Io plasma torus), but using electromagnetic and plasma waves to drive a net current in the ring(s) that results in an overall magnetic field,” the study explains.

Voila, instant magnetic field!

MAGNETIC FIELDS AND THE DAWN OF SPACE COLONIZATION

The team behind the proposal readily concedes the far out nature of their idea. However, they also point out that humans colonizing Mars (and other not-terrestrial locations) is right around the corner. So if the plan is to make it a permanent human settlement, this plan may offer one route to protecting those folks from the harsh environment they are attempting to homestead. Plus, the research team notes, smaller, more viable versions may also be required across the wide range of proposed space habitats of the future.

“With a new era of space exploration underway, this is the time to start thinking about these new and bold future concepts and to begin filling strategic knowledge gaps,” the study explains. “Furthermore, the principles explored here are also applicable to smaller scale objects like manned spacecraft, space stations or moon bases, which would benefit from the creation of protective mini-magnetospheres.”

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