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Force Field Might Shield Astronauts on Way to Mars

Shields are up, Captain Kirk, and we're on our way to Mars.

British and Portuguese researchers may have solved one of the biggest problems facing interplanetary travel — how to get astronauts there and back without deadly solar radiation frying their DNA and setting off a cascade of cancers and related diseases.

The answer? A force field to ward off solar particles, generated by a powerful electromagnet onboard a spaceship.

"The idea is really like in 'Star Trek', when Scotty turns on a shield to protect the starship Enterprise from proton beams," researcher Bob Bingham of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England, told Agence France-Presse. "It's almost identical, really."

A recent NASA study had concluded that manned missions to Mars would be impossible, because the lead shielding to protect astronauts during the 18-month return trip would be too heavy to get into orbit.

And in December 2006, a solar flare and the stream of charged particles that followed it caused the crews of the International Space Station and space shuttle Discovery to take cover behind heavy equipment — even though, being in low Earth orbit, the ISS is reasonably well protected by the Earth's magnetic field.

The idea of generating a force field is several decades old, but all previous versions of it had presumed a huge field hundreds of miles across — and the size of the electromagnet needed would make that impossible.

Bingham and his colleagues, who bombarded a small generated field with radiation guns, showed the "bubble" could be a lot smaller, just a few hundred yards in diameter.

The device still wouldn't shield the crew from rare, but extremely powerful, interstellar cosmic rays, but Bingham said a dense protective coating applied to a spaceship's hull would take care of that.

• Click here to read more on this from Agence France-Presse.

• Click here for the press release on the Web site of Britain's Science and Technology Facilities Council.

• Click here to visit FOXNews.com's Space Center.