A totally sci-fi magnetic shield could protect us from solar storms

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Oct 3, 2017, 5:24 PM EDT

While it sounds like sci-fi movie material, there are scientists out there who believe the future is now in terms of building a magnetic solar shield.

The future vision of Mansavi Lingam and Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is an Earth-size shield that will ward off solar storms that spew charged particles, X-rays and magnetized plasma that can pretty much kill anything running on electricity. That means much worse outages than just your wifi. Even minor storms disrupt satellites, communications, you name it, so just imagine the impact an epic sunstorm would have (never mind a coronal mass ejection). Not to mention that the global economy could be out 10 trillion dollars, according to Gizmodo.

“It is widely established that extreme space weather events associated with solar flares are capable of causing widespread technological damage,” Lingam and Loeb state in a paper considered for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. “We outline a mitigation strategy to protect our planet by setting up a magnetic shield to deflect charged particles.”

This mitigation strategy involves a magnetic shield so enormous that it would actually deflect the charged particle-vomit from the sun. While such a thing would be beyond expensive, Lingam and Loeb look ahead to a future when we will almost undoubtedly rely on technology even more than we do now, and it isn’t just smartphones and i-gadgets. Compared to the destruction caused by a massive solar storm (which has a 10 percent chance of happening within the next decade), the shield would be something of a bargain. The greater the reliance on technology, the greater the potential economic catastrophe.


With methods easier to imagine than actually make a reality, the scientists decided to hypothetically go magnetic.

“[Some] shielding solutions rely on placing physical object(s) between the Earth and the Sun. This would not work since the mass will be tremendous and can block the sunlight,” Lingam told Gizmodo. “Similarly, one can use electrical fields instead of magnetic fields. However, the problem is that the electrical field will repel positive particles but will attract the negative particles. Hence, we suggest that magnetic shielding is relatively the most viable.”

It will be even more viable if we find a way to build this thing from materials in the Kuiper belt rather than launching them from Earth. It could potentially take billions of dollars off an estimated price tag that is already at hundreds of billions—around the total cost of the International Space Station.

You would expect there to be skeptics, and there are. Some either feel the design outlined in Lingam and Loeb’s proposal is not complex enough or are second-guessing the projected cost-effectiveness. Some feel we’re best off sun-proofing our tech infrastructure or at least getting as close to technological SPF as we possibly can.

Then there are always going to be those who think aliens might have already beat us to this, but that’s an entirely different argument to keep scientists up at night.

(via Gizmodo)