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Is it possible to glide on the earth's magnetic field, or to have it support a spacecraft? If so, how?
Question Date: 2007-08-03
Answer 1:

It is in theory possible, but the earth's magnetic field is so weak that unless your spacecraft is very light you won't see much of an effect. Basically some amusement park rides use the eddy currents that are induced by a conductor in a changing magnetic field to produce a counterforce to break. Things like "superman's escape" as six flags magic mountain is (I believe) an example of this. For sure, the "giant drop" at six flags great America uses this. However, these use very strong magnets. It is possible to use the same physics to slow a space shuttle from falling through the air, but the earth's magnetic field is so weak this is unlikely to have a noticeable effect.

Answer 2:

If your spacecraft were to carry a net electric charge then the field would cause your ship to stop because magnetic fields deflect moving charged particles, which then radiate away all of their kinetic energy in the form of synchrotron radiation (light of the frequency of the revolution). Doing this creates a magnetic field that counteracts the existing field, so it would weaken the Earth's magnetic field by doing this (although only so slightly).

All of this said, maintaining a net charge would be essentially impossible: the Earth's ionosphere, being a plasma, would cling to your ship and negate the field, and even if you could prevent that, the net charge would exert repulsive force on itself and on the ship, and if the charge were appreciable enough to do this, it would blow your ship apart.

Answer 3:

Very light particles can get deflected by Earth's magnetic field instead of falling directly to earth. But they have to be ionized in order to interact with the magnetic field. And the deflection is mostly toward Earth's poles. This is fortunate for us, because it protects us from a lot of high-energy particles which would cause cancers and other problems. A spaceship has too much mass to be deflected appreciably--and a crash at the North Pole isn't any better than a crash elsewhere. :-)

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