Shields Up

Whilst we're all busy drooling over the new Star Trek trailer , scientists at the University of York , the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory , the University of Strathclyde and IST Lisbon are working on making one of the series' most iconic pieces of technology a reality.

One of the problems with space, as the man once put it, is that it's really, really big. Travelling any extended distance, even to such relatively close locations as Mars exposes the crew to solar wind and cosmic radiation, both of which pose serious health risks and, unfortunately, no chance of entertaining mutations. Whilst there has been some research into the idea of 'storm shelters', heavily shielded compartments within spacecraft that the crew could take refuge in, the radiation remains a serious obstacle to any further exploration of the solar system.

But now, scientists at the four institutions have worked out what looks like a solution to the problem and the answer lies in the source of the solar wind itself. University of York researchers have conducted lab experiments which have replicated the energetic 'plasma' particles expelled by the sun, allowing research to be carried out on the way different types of magnetic field deflect these particles. The work has confirmed computer simulations carried out by the Lisbon and Rutherford Appleton teams last year that showed that, in theory, a magnetic field a few hundred metres across would be enough to offer protection.

If this is the case, a ship projecting the right configuration of 'pocket magnetosphere' would be protected, the deadly radiation flowing around instead of through it. Plus, you know any ship captain worth their salt will get a jolt of pure, geeky joy as they turn to their helmsman and say 'shields up.'

Article contributed by Alasdair Stuart, of Hub magazine ( www.hub-mag.co.uk ). To find out more about the new Star Trek movie, click here .