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July 6 2014

Magnetic bubble may give space probes a soft landing


PARACHUTES made of plasma trapped in a magnetic field could soon be helping space probes glide safely back to Earth.

Two private aerospace companies have won NASA contracts to demonstrate magnetoshell aerocapture, a way of shrouding a falling spacecraft in a magnetic bubble akin to the plasma shield around Earth. But whereas Earth's magnetosphere protects it from solar radiation, a similar bubble around a spacecraft creates drag, slowing it down. If a test next year proves successful, the technique could help future probes land heavy loads on Mars or bring back human missions to deep space.

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