NASA Lunar Orbiter Discovers Materials that Halt Hazardous Space Radiation: Mars Mission on Track

First Posted: Jun 12, 2013 06:03 AM EDT

Radiation has long been an issue when it comes to space travel. In fact, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently confirmed previous research on the hazards of space radiation, revealing that radiation levels on the way to the Red Planet are several hundred times higher than the those humans receive on Earth. Now, scientists may have found a way to shield astronauts from the hazards of this radiation.

Aluminum has always been the primary material in spacecraft construction. Unfortunately, this metal provides little protection against high-energy cosmic rays. In addition, aluminum is relatively heavy, which means that adding more mass to a spacecraft for extra protection may make it cost-prohibitive to launch.

Now researchers have found another material to use. Using data gathered by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), scientists have discovered that lighter materials, like plastics, can actually be used effectively against radiation hazards.

So how exactly did they find this out? The researchers used the Cosmic Ray Telescope from the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) onboard the LRO. This instrument allowed the researchers to accurately gauge the radiation dose of cosmic rays after passing through a material known as "tissue-equivalent plastic." This material simulates human muscle tissue. The experiment helped validate the models and the ground-based measurements, which means that lightweight shielding materials could safely be used for long missions-like on one to Mars.

"This is the first study using observations from space to confirm what has been thought for some time-that plastics and other lightweight materials are pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum," said Cary Zeitlin, lead author of the paper, in a news release. "Shielding can't entirely solve the radiation exposure problem in deep space, but there are clear differences in effectiveness of different materials."

The findings are important for sending astronauts to Mars. One of the great hurdles that NASA and other space pioneers need to overcome is protecting travellers from the hazards of radiation exposure during the long trip to the Red Planet. This new research could give astronauts a bit more safety, and may mean that we're closer to Mars than we might think.

The findings were published in the journal Space Weather.

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