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NASA’s new cosmic ray simulator is a small step towards the moon and Mars

Illustration of radiation passing from a human body

In space, astronauts are constantly bombarded by cosmic rays. NASA now has a way to study the effect on Earth.


The Milky Way is a wild west of high-energy subatomic particles that shine in the galaxy at speeds approaching the speed of light. Because these galactic cosmic rays seep around our space, sometimes they do penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and produce a shower of secondary particlesThanks to the Earth’s atmosphere (and magnetic fields), they do not pose a huge problem for human health on Earth. But in space, it’s a different story.

In space, exposure to GCRs or cosmic radiation can damage DNA, damage the brain, and affect the normal biological function of cells. However, the effects of cosmic rays on astronauts are not yet well understood. If we are ever going to travel further in space or spend months on the moon or Mars, we need to figure out how our bodies can be affected by the rays.

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So, of course, NASA has built a machine that emits rays of high-energy particles to begin testing exactly how cosmic radiation can affect us. We call it now: It is a cosmic ray pistol – it is simply not the weapon that will inflict immediate, obvious damage.

In a new study published in the open source journal PLoS Biology on Tuesday, scientists at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory in Brookhaven, New York, detail the development and use of the first ground-based “galactic cosmic ray simulator” capable of recreated more precisely the actual radiation environment found in space.

Cosmic rays are made up of a mixture of energy particles such as protons, helium ions and heavier ions such as carbon and iron. In the past, scientists have had the ability to shoot rays of energy particles at each other, but only one at a time. However, because the mixture of particles in GCRs interacts with spacecraft and the human body in different ways, scientists are interested in studying how they all work together.

In fact, the simulator is less of a “gun” and more of a “particle accelerator.” The simulator uses Brookhaven Booster Synchron, which is able to shoot and accelerate particles to extremely high energies that the laboratory can use. The laboratory can then control how the GCR rays are delivered to the target area.

“Using well-established ecological models of the space environment, radiation physics and the geometry of the human body, we have
calculate the number of particles and their energies that will reach critical organs in the body – such as the brain, lungs and liver, “said Lisa Simonsen, a researcher on cosmic radiation at NSRL and the study’s lead author.

New technology, such as beam switching, allows the simulator to move quickly between different combinations of beams, mimicking the space environment more closely. The beams, which can measure 60×60 centimeters, can be focused on the target area to deliver a dose of cosmic radiation, as researchers see fit.

“Fast switching technology allows all relevant types and energies to be covered in one experiment,” says Simonsen.

The first experiments performed by NASA scientists began in 2018 and evaluated acute and chronic doses of radiation in mice. Animals can be placed inside their cages and receive dosing radiation right here on Earth. The results of these early experiments are yet to be published, but the authors suggest that the first implementation of the space beam simulator will allow them to plan future operations. And it’s not just about biological research. The GCR simulator can focus on different materials to understand how they could handle shielding spacecraft.

“We are very excited to see our first published results coming out sometime next year to understand the mixed ionic effects, dose effects and countermeasures in a simulated space environment,” says Simonsen.

We are already talking about how the human body changes when it leaves the Earth. Before we can travel deeper among the stars, we need to learn about the potential nasty effects we could experience when traveling long distances. The GCR simulator is a massive technological leap forward that will help us put our feet in more distant worlds.

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