Is it feasible to build a spaceborne electromagnetic lens (such as but not limited to a solenoid) of large area (perhaps as large as the ring at the supercollider at CERN) to gather and intensify solar wind or cosmic rays?

It is notable that solar wind particles follow the magnetic field lines spiraling out from the Sun and are approximately parallel in their paths.

An article for background (behind paywall) A Proposed Focusing Cosmic-Ray Telescope, WT Harris, Phys. Rev. 71, 310, March 47

ABSTRACT: A magnetic lens which will focus charged particles entering its aperture parallel to the axis can be constructed in the form of a toroidal winding. For an air or iron core toroid, the cross section of the winding is parabolic. If partial iron filling is used, trapezoidal or rectangular cross sections may be employed to produce sharp focusing.

Potential applications:

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    $\begingroup$ EM fields can only affect charged particles. Glass lens can affect only about in the wavelength of the order of visible light. But imho the idea is good, it could work well to increase the luminosity of a specific particles from a specific direction and energy magnitude (most likely, high-energy electrons and protons). $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Commented Feb 29, 2020 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ thank you to @uhoh. The AMS link is particularly useful. Scaling up the AMS is what my question is about. $\endgroup$
    – DrBunny
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ @DrBunny Okay, in that case it would be really great if you edited your question and explained that within the question itself. Things that get discussed and worked out in comments should be implemented in the original post. Comments should be seen as temporary and the posts should stand on their own. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh The AMS link was useful because I had not heard of the AMS. Reconsidering, I don't want to limit lens design to a scaled-up AMS. $\endgroup$
    – DrBunny
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


Front matter

I lost some steam on this; it was kindly asked at the beginning of a weekend but in its infinite wisdom the resident question closing cabal invoked exchangus interuptus.

Now I'm getting yelled at for "playing that darn stack changing video game again" on a weekday.

...(such as but not limited to a toroidal wound solenoid)...

I'll be writing about a normal linear solenoids, the same shape as those used at CERN and in the AMS. I'm not sure how to specifically address a "toroidal wound solenoid" like those used in Tokamaks because those are closed and only focus particles that are already trapped inside and already circulating. They can't focus or collect incoming particles in any useful way that I can think of.


Is it feasible to build a spaceborne electromagnetic lens... to gather and focus cosmic rays?

No. Take a magnifying glass outside and try to concentrate blue sky.

The way that the AMS-02 uses the field is to slightly alter the direction of the particles and measure that change with position sensitive detectors and ray-tracking calculations, the same thing that CERN does. There's not really any focusing or concentration involved in either case.

Solenoids as focusing devices

The way solenoids focus is interesting, here is a rough handwaving explanation. A particle comes in roughly along the axis in the $\pm \hat{z}$ direction and interacts with the radial component ($\pm \hat{r}$ direction) of the external field. That induces a rotational motion around the axis in the $\pm \hat{\phi}$ direction. (cylindrical coordinates)

I've used $\pm$ because you could be going in either direction along $\hat{z}$ and the particle could be either positive or negative, and the current flow in the coil could be in either direction.

What's cool is that those don't matter.

File:Solenoid and Ampere Law - 2.png Figure (a): Magnetic field pattern of a solenoid)

From here and here

Then that motion interacts with the axial or $\hat{z}$ component of the magnetic field producing a radial force in the $-\hat{r}$ direction.

No matter which direction you are going (like most focusing lenses) it focuses. But because it's a second order effect using the same magnetic field twice (in two orthogonal directions) and therefore depends on $q^2 B^2$ a solenoid will always focus both charge signs, unless it's so strong that there's a focal point within the lens itself and what comes out the other end is a diverging beam after the focus.

The orbits are a little weird inside but in some particle detectors they put thin position sensitive gas detectors inside and use those points along the trajectory to get some information on the particle.

enter image description here click for full size

From here found here. (Figure 36.4. Lens operating modes. (A) Condenser–objective mode. (B) Second-zone mode. (C) Conventional mode... EP: Entrance pupil; SP: specimen; OA: objective aperture; CI: crossover image. After Riecke (1982), Courtesy Springer Verlag.)

The image above hints that solenoids are often used in electron microscopes and other charged particle optical systems. There are also electrostatic lenses but those require extremely high voltages for high energy particles.

Ingo Hofmann's paper Performance of solenoids versus quadrupoles in focusing and energy selection of laser accelerated protons (also here, also see this) for example is useful because it also describes the other kind of magnetic lens, a pair of magnetic quadrupoles, and because it highlights the fact that magnetic (and electrostatic) lenses are purely chromatic. Unlike glass which gives weak chromatic aberration, the focal length of magnetic lenses depends strongly on the particles speed. Lenses are sometimes used to separate particles of different velocity using a pinhole!

The paper gives an equation for the approximate focal length of a thin solenoid. Because they work in a complicated way an exact formula is tough and most people star with this and then go straight to ray tracing.

$$1/f_S = \left( \frac{q}{2 m c \beta \gamma } \right)^2 B^2 L$$

where $\beta = v/c$ and $\gamma = 1 / \sqrt{1-\beta^2}$ the latter of which we can call "of order 1" unless the particle is very high energy.

Right away we see that the focal length depends on the square of the charge/mass ratio and the square of the field/velocity ratio. That means two things:

  1. none of the signs of $B$, $v$ or $q$ matter
  2. you'll need pretty large magnetic fields for high energy cosmic rays

What does the energy spectrum of cosmic rays look like?

Fig 1: Cosmic-ray electrons energy spectrum measured with H.E.S.S. in 2017 (red dots) compared to previous measurements from various experiments. click for full size

AMS data are blue dots From H.E.S.S. : “Probing Local Sources with High Energy Cosmic Ray Electrons”

The peak is about 3 GeV (3E-03 TeV). Let's calculate the focal length for that using the actual 0.15 Tesla field from the permanent magnets of AMS-02 and for 7 Tesla, the top end of commercial MRI systems

With a kinetic energy of 3 GeV and a rest mass of about 1 GeV $\gamma = T/mc^2 + 1$ is about 4 and $\beta = \sqrt{1-1/\gamma^2}$ is about 0.94, so the focal lengths are about 24 kilometers for AMS-02 and 11 meters for a 7 Tesla superconducting solenoid assuming their lengths are about 1 meter. If you make them much longer, you can get shorter focal lengths.

If you make a really big giant superconducting solenoid, you can start to think about this, but...

It doesn't matter!

Remember two things:

  1. Cosmic rays are essentially isotropic. They don't come from a single direction. A lens would just mix up their directions but not concentrate. Take a magnifying glass and try to concentrate light reflected from a flat wall or take it outdoors and try to concentrate blue sky on a piece of paper; it doesn't work!
  2. Even if it did, (which it doesn't) magnetic lenses are completely chromatic, so you could only concentrate a small range of energies effectively.
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    $\begingroup$ This answer demonstrates the question should have been closed as off-topic (it's a physics question) apart from the quoted "in space"there is nothing in this answer related to space exploration -- it scarcely references the cosmic ray deviation experiments which have been done. $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 7:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DrBunny the velocity distribution from both the normal solar wind and those bursts from major events are very broad and magnetic lenses are completely chromatic so while you can get some concentration effects it won't be the same as how a lens or concave mirror concentrates sunlight. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh OK, gonna ask a meta ? now. No, I'm not, it's 2 AM. G'nite. $\endgroup$
    – DrBunny
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh A west window in my house looks out on blue sky in the AM. A magnifying glass held a couple feet from the window produces a brighter patch on a dark card. Not a focused spot, but brighter than the unaffected light from the window. EM lenses affect only particles with radial velocity components, and these spiral toward the axis. Particles moving parallel to the axis are not affected. That means that if a certain fraction of the particles entering the lens move parallel to the axis, of the particles leaving the lens, a higher fraction are moving parallel to the axis. $\endgroup$
    – DrBunny
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DrBunny Cool, an experimentalist! Now I'm gonna have to try it too once the weather clears up again;, the last time I did I was pretty young and the astronauts hadn't landed on the Moon yet. But what you said about magnetic lenses is not exactly right. If you approach the solenoid parallel to the axis but offset, you'll definitely experience the steps just as I've described, in fact that's exactly the case I described. Only particles that are exactly on axis and parallel to it are undeflected. It's a real lens. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 23:10

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