NASA builds a Galactic Cosmic Ray Simulator to study space radiation

How radiation in space impacts the human body is one of the key questions facing scientists planning for future missions to the Moon and beyond, and NASA now has a powerful new tool to study the phenomenon here on Earth. Called the Galactic Cosmic Ray Simulator, the device has now enabled scientists to observe the effects of a key source of space radiation on animal models, marking an important step toward understanding its true physiological effects on humans.

While the Earth’s atmosphere safeguards us from radiation for the most part, humans venturing out into space are offered no such protections. NASA studies have revealed evidence of DNA damage in astronauts exposed to radiation in space, while others have found it can bring a heightened risk of leukemia and other cancers.

Despite these kinds of studies, there remains a lot for us to learn about how space radiation impacts the human body. While it can come from the Sun via solar flares and from particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, a key source of space radiation that future explorers will need to contend with is Galactic Cosmic Rays.

Originating from outside the solar system but mostly from within the Milky Way, these particle streams are made up of protons, helium ions and other high-energy ions that zip through space at nearly the speed of light and are very hard to guard against. How they behave when they collide with spacecraft materials and human tissues is something scientists are working to better understand.

But recreating the complex makeup of these cosmic rays for the purpose of study as proven difficult. Previously, scientists have explored their health risks through mono-energetic beams of single ions, but NASA’s new device is capable of offering a much more complete picture.

The ground-based Galactic Cosmic Ray Simulator was used to fire 33 unique ion-energy beam combinations in quick succession, a feat the scientists say replicated the cumulative radiation astronauts could expect to receive on a deep space mission. In another round of experiments, simulated cosmic rays were delivered to animal models over a period of four weeks to study the risk of cancers, cardiovascular disease and impacts on the central nervous system.

This successful demonstration of the Galactic Cosmic Ray Simulator establishes the device as a tool to study mixed fields of ions on animal models, where previously they mostly needed to be studied through separate experiments. According to the authors of the study, this much closer recreation of the space environment “enables a new era of radiobiology research” and will greatly accelerate efforts to understand the risks of deep space travel.

The paper detailed the development of the device and its functions was published in the journal PLOS Biology.

Source: PLOS via EurekAlert

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