Last year the Nauka v Sibiri (Science in Siberia) newspaper reported on new experiments conducted at the Institute of Laser Physics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The experiments are staged on a special unit KI-1 (Cosmic Investigations-1) where scientists observed for the first time capture of plasma in a dipole trap imitating the magnetic field of the Earth as well as anomalous interactions of space plasma clouds with magnetic field. And quite recently the same periodical carried excerpts from a report at a session of the Academy Presidium by the person in charge of these experiments, Arnold Ponomarenko, Dr. Sc. (Phys. & Math.), who described the whole program of laboratory and theoretical studies-modeling powerful explosions in outer space.
The scientist pointed out that the idea of cosmic modeling was born within the walls of the Institute of Nuclear Physics named after G. Budker of the RAS Siberian Branch. Work on the experimental unit KI-1 started back in the 1970s at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the RAS Siberian Branch. In the beginning the testing unit was intended for the solution of a concrete fundamental problem: to try and determine the stability of the terrestrial magnetosphere during strong solar flares. That was important above all for solving the problems of safe flights of artificial earth satellites and studies of major explosions in space. What remained unclear was whether or not nuclear energy could be used beyond its confines as had been suggested by the US physicist Prof. E. Teller in his hypothesis about the protection of the Earth from asteroids-a subject that excited the whole of the international community. Nuclear blasts in space were banned back in 1964, and it was proposed to conduct them some "safe" distance away from the planet, although none really knew what that distance should be.
The Siberian scientists submitted this hypothesis to a theoretical verification. Calculations were made as to where an asteroid could be blown up so as to prevent the "products" of the blast from upsetting the magnetosphere of the Earth and impacting orbital systems. It was established as a result that, first, the destruction of major asteroids would require the whole world arsenals of nuclear weapons and, second, the blast had to be conducted at a distance of one hundred radii of the Earth. Having it any closer would mean complete deformation of the Earth's magnetosphere.
Having said that, how the KI-1 unit is doing its job? The secret consists in the fact that imitation of a strong disturbance is carried out with the help of a blast produced by focusing upon a "target" of powerful laser emission. A flux of hot plasma is produced in vacuum, imitating a start explosion or powerful solar discharges in the direction of our planet.
The "earthly" dimensions in the test chamber are determined by a task which lends itself to a solution. If an explosion is imitated in its proximity, a dipole of up to 20 cm is used, and for observing a more "global" picture a mock-up of a smaller size is used. Located inside the chamber is a coil through which electric current is passed, generating, like in the Earth, a magnetic (dipole) field with bending power lines. It has two patches-North and South-in which fantastically colorful aurora polaris are produced * - an area where streams of "solar wind" reached out unobstructed... In the
* See: L. Lazutin, "Northern Lights", Science in Russia, No. 4, 200!. - Ed .
experiments with KI-1 scientists observed, for example, that plasma of the quiet "solar wind" changes the configuration of the dipole field, compressing it from the front and forming an area of stretched-out magnetic lines of force in the direction opposite the Sun.
On a diagram of computer modeling of an asteroid explosion at a distance of two radii of the Earth one can see powerful glow flashing over the planet. After some time it becomes clear that one, the main share of the hot matter, is reflected by the Earth, while the other gets into the areas of its poles. In other words, plasma does not move towards our planet, being held up by the magnetic field. The image shows some narrow "beaks" - these curves represent some "debris" of the explosion streaming towards the Earth... The studies of everything which belongs to the notion of stability of the magnetosphere of our planet is termed "cosmic weather".
But call it what you may, the problem is of a truly fundamental importance. Strong disturbances in space are the cause of appreciable upsets in the performance of all aircraft which can even become uncontrolled. The US space telescope Hubble was functioning without a snag until something went wrong, something happened to its mirrors, and the probe costs millions of dollars. In order to replace the mirrors, the Americans had to launch a new Shuttle and the problem was solved.
Problems of this kind are bound to be repeated, and of central importance in this respect are the energetics of space systems. Without reliable sources of power it is impossible to implement any research program of this kind. And future missions are bound to become more remote and complicated. Even now the Mars-Express interplanetary station with our ESA probe on board is on its way to the Red Planet * . And, as they say, Lord, have mercy upon us!- because, if something goes wrong, the Shuttle won't help...
The source of electricity in space are solar batteries, but they have low capacity. It would require a mammoth battery to provide a power source of hundreds of kilowatts. And repairing this unit would be a real problem. Therefore it is really hard to predict the course of development of space energetics.
With all these facts in mind, we are facing the problem of developing a motor, or engine, similar to the KI-1 unit whose "motive force" will be microblasts in magnetic fields. The plasma will be ejected one way and the ship's power pulses - in the opposite direction. A space probe of this kind would be able to attain velocities of hundreds of kilometers per second and a mission to Mars and back would take no more than one month.
Building a laser - thermonuclear power unit for space probes is a task of great complexity. And there are also other projects for boosting the speed of flights in space. The final choice is up to the scientists.
Nauka v Sibiri (Science in Siberia), 2003
Prepared by Yaroslav RENKAS
* See: Yu. Markov, "Destination-Red Planet", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2003. - Ed.
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