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Full Power to the Deflector! - Taking EM Shields from Scifi to Reality

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Published on Thursday, 28 January 2021

For seven minutes during the most critical maneuver in any Mars lander’s mission, communications go dark. As millions of Euros in taxpayer investment hurdle out of the darkness towards the dusty red surface, the team back on Earth can do nothing more than hold its breath.

At that brutal moment, the Mars lander is engulfed in superheated plasma -- electric blue and burning at around 1000 C. It is an experience unique to spacecraft that enter a planet’s atmosphere, an elite club which to-date includes only re-entry capsules (like from the Apollo missions), space shuttles (like Challenger and Columbia), and of course, Mars landers. “It is known as ‘blackout’,” explains SnT research scientist and plasma specialist Dr. Jan Thoemel. “And for the scientists back home, it is seven minutes of terror. But our project MEESST will be a step towards making it a thing of the past.”

Funded by a European Commission H2020 grant, the Magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) Enhanced Entry System for Space Transportation (MEESST) project explores the possibility of using a superconductive magnet to create a magnetic field that can shield the spacecraft from the plasma engulfing it. “We hope to not only make atmospheric entry more safe, but also to enable radio communication through that plasma,” explains Dr. Thoemel. “Landing is the most challenging part of any mission, but we can only learn from accidents if we know exactly what went wrong - lessons that Europe learned the hard way during the Beagle 2 landing. So creating that communications connection is crucial to our progress.” And scientists here at SnT will provide the radio communications modelling experience necessary to do just that.

SnT, as an interdisciplinary research center with extensive experience in satellite communications, is in a unique position to bring together plasma experts, who are typically mechanical engineers, and radio communication experts, who are typically electrical engineers. Dr. Thoemel will be taking advantage of his background in satellite engineering, and his collaborative relationship with his colleagues at the communication engineering group, to guide the development of an effective model of radiofrequency waves as they move through plasma in the presence of a superconductive magnet’s intense electro-magnetic field. “The current model, which was produced by NASA, has some fundamental flaws in it. We have better methods to simulate the event and therefore better capacity to model the problem accurately. In fact, we had an opportunity to validate the concept behind our modelling approach for the last robotic mission to Mars, ExoMars. And it worked.”

Dr. Thoemel will, with the help of a PhD student, tackle the job of fleshing out the new approach to plasma-channel and radio-frequency-waves modelling. Dr. Juan Merlano Duncan, a research scientist working with him, will be providing the crucial communication modeling. And the whole team at SnT will be working with colleagues at the Katholieke University of Leuven, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the von Karman Institute in Belgium, and the University of Stuttgart. The last two of which are taking on the leviathan task of actually creating (and containing) the plasma needed to conduct testing. Together the researchers will be building on their existing model to improve their accuracy and to account for the electromagnetic field generated by the newly introduced superconductive magnet. “The superconductive magnet is completely new to this situation —  the technology only recently became available — and we believe that it is a critical technology for space exploration going forward,” said Dr. Thoemel. By the end of the project, the group hopes to have brought electromagnetic shielding technologies to technology readiness level (TRL) four or perhaps even to five.

 “Having the opportunity to develop this project is so exciting,” said Dr. Thoemel, “I mean, not everyone gets to go into work every day and build something that Geordi La Forge and Jean Luc Picard might call a ‘deflector shield’.”

Caption: Image of the grapefruit pink plasma seen upon reentry to Earth.