Scientists have long known about the dangers deep-space radiation poses to astronauts, though a new study reveals it is a much bigger worry than initially thought. At the very least, the effects of deep-space radiation are only getting worse, and technology is struggling to keep up.
Data about radiation levels spanning the last four years show that the radiation environment is getting worse. Lead author Nathan Schwadron noted that it is at least 30 percent more intense than it was just four years ago. This information was obtained from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, an instrument that orbits the moon and has since 2009. Dose rates of galactic cosmic rays were measured as part of their data-gathering methods. These rays are made up of primarily protons and nuclei that are now moving at incredibly rapid speeds as the result of cosmic events, such as supernovas. They can damage spacecraft, interfere with electronics, and can cause radiation sickness in those who travel through space. Long-term effects could include cancer.
Deep-space radiation can do more than negatively impact space travelers. It can also play a role in space weather, which must be carefully studied when planning any future mission. This includes those that travel established paths, such as launches to the International Space Station and missions to the moon. Since the rays can cause physical damage to a craft as well as interfere with the ability to connect with ground control, it is incredibly important for scientists to fully understand how they work and how to avoid their impact.
Experts believe that the increase in radiation levels is connected to an 11-year period of low solar activity. When the sun is active, it spreads its energy throughout the solar system more effectively, deflecting those harmful rays. Periods of low activity result in less efficient energy dispersal and an influx of galactic cosmic rays.
Periods of high solar activity also pose risks to those traveling throughout space. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can also dramatically increase the levels of radiation in space. This can create problems with technical equipment and can lead to electronic interference.
The study’s authors hope to inspire the scientific community to develop ways to protect vehicles and those traveling in space from this type of radiation. They also hope that they can find ways to predict space weather and other cosmic events to some degree. These predictions could lead to safer flight paths for future launches.