Future Space Craft
The risks from radiation in space, and the need to keep the crew safe on long flights, may influence the shape of future spaceships.
The major radiation sources are galactic cosmic rays, charged particles: from electrons up to the heavy metal elements and 'solar particle events', which throw out protons and helium nuclei.
Exposure from the hazards of severe space radiation in long-duration deep space missions is 'the show stopper'. Protection from the hazards of severe space radiation is of paramount importance to NASA's new vision to reach the Moon, Mars and beyond.
The electrons, protons & heavy-metal ions such as iron and uranium whiz through the void and can all cause cancers. But aluminium shielding capable of staving the radiation off on extended journeys would be prohibitively heavy, burning too much fuel.
The ideal form, according to Ram Tripathi, a spaceflight engineer at NASA, is a grapefruit spiked with cherries on sticks. With positively and negatively charged metal spheres be arranged on struts jutting out of the crew capsule, in carefully controlled directions, to give the crew a high degree of electrostatic radiation cover.
Tripathi calculates the "cherries" would need to be between 10 and 20 metres in diameter and would be stationed about 50 metres from the crew capsule – the "grapefruit". These spheres would protect the crew by deflecting charged particles away from the central habitat. Spheres give you more volume and less mass, and evenly distribute the deflecting charges over their surface.
The charged spheres would be made of lightweight hollow aluminium, the material shielding the crew capsule would incorporate carbon nanotubes – in a novel composite with aluminium. The nanotubes are light, they can take a pounding from heavy incoming ions.
Or we could have spaceships with a more conventional shape like a submarine, the starship enterprise, the space shuttle or nerva, with a false skin filled with smaller spheres (or even tubes) having the same desired effect, deflecting radiation and adding volume, without overwhelmingly increasing the mass.
Laser power stations, drawing energy from the local environment, might one day propel spacecraft throughout the solar system. NASA studies of advanced planetary missions have ranged from small robotic probes to multiple-spacecraft human exploration missions.
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