The largest, most expensive space-science experiment left Earth earlier this week with Endeavour. And inside AMS is a superconducting magnet—but not the more powerful one that was 12 years in the making.
Researchers at Scientific Magnetics donated over a decade of their time creating a really powerful magnet (creatively dubbed AMS-02 Superconducting Magnet) meant to analyze charges of cosmic rays. There is, however, one pretty significant shortcoming with the 10-foot, 4500-pound super magnet: Its 660-gallon, superfluid-helium cooling mechanism means it's got a short lifespan. And since the International Space Station is expected to be in operation 'til at least 2020, the British magnet was swapped out for a less powerful, longer-lasting model. How pissed were they when they got that call?
One potential use for AMS-02 now is astronaut protection. Assuming we eventually travel to Mars, colonize the Moon, or set out on any other long-term space missions, we'll need protection from those cosmic rays (and SPF 30 won't cut it). Modifying the UK magnet's coils and currents could allow for a magnetic field to surround an inner bore that's magnetic-field free. In other words, if Howard Johnson wants to open up shop on the Moon, they're going to need a setup like this so their guests don't call room service with endless complaints of cosmic radiation poisoning.
The second application is in ion propulsion. Although this isn't the fastest means of space travel, it's one of the most efficient. The magnet would function as a nozzle for pumping plasma. The plasma, expanding out the back of the nozzle, would create the thrust needed for supersonic speeds. With these plasma rocket engines, we could cut the travel time to Mars down to weeks instead of months. Ford won't be pushing "light years per plasma" any time soon, but an astronaut can dream, can't he? [Scientific Magnetics via BBC and PopSci]
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