Fungi Were Able to Absorb Radiation on the ISS. Could Astronauts Grow Their own Radiation Shields in Space?

A lack of effective radiation shielding is one of the biggest challenges still to be overcome if humans are to embark on long-term voyages into deep space. On Earth, the planet’s powerful magnetosphere protects us from the deadliest forms of radiation – those produced by solar flares, and galactic cosmic rays arriving from afar – that stream through the Solar System. Astronauts on the International Space Station, some 408km above the Earth, receive elevated levels of radiation, but are close enough to Earth that they still receive some shielding, and can stay on orbit for up to a year. The same can’t be said for astronauts traveling further out, to the Moon, for example, or, someday, to Mars. Future deep space voyagers will need to bring their own shielding with them – or, as a new paper suggests – grow it along the way.

Continue reading “Fungi Were Able to Absorb Radiation on the ISS. Could Astronauts Grow Their own Radiation Shields in Space?”

There are Natural Features on Mars That Could Serve as Radiation Shelters

Mars is bombarded with radiation. Without a protective magnetic shield and a thick atmosphere like Earth’s, radiation from space has a nearly unimpeded path to the Martian surface. Our machines can roam around on the surface and face all that radiation with impunity. But not humans. For humans, all that radiation is a deadly hazard.

How can any potential human explorers cope with that?

Well, they’ll need shelter. And they’ll either have to bring it along with them or build it there somehow.

Or maybe not. Maybe they could use natural features as part of their protection.

Continue reading “There are Natural Features on Mars That Could Serve as Radiation Shelters”

A Human Mission to Mars Should Last a Maximum of 4 Years

At one time, the idea of sending humans to Mars either seemed like a distant prospect or something out of science fiction. But with multiple space agencies and even commercial space companies planning to mount missions in the coming decade, the day when humans will go to Mars is fast approaching the point of realization. Before this can happen, several issues need to be resolved first, including a myriad of technical and human factors.

In any discussion about crewed missions to Mars, there are recurring questions about whether or not we can mitigate the threat of radiation. In a new study, an international team of space scientists addressed the question of whether particle radiation would be too great a threat and if radiation could be mitigating through careful timing. In the end, they found that a mission to Mars is doable but that it could not exceed a duration of four years.

Continue reading “A Human Mission to Mars Should Last a Maximum of 4 Years”

Greenhouses Probably won’t Work on Mars Because of Cosmic Radiation. Even the Plants Will Have to Live Underground

Mars is a lifeless wasteland for more than one reason.  Not only are the temperatures and lack of water difficult for life to deal with, the lack of a magnetic field means radiation constantly pummels the surface.  If humans ever plan to spend prolonged periods of time on the red planet, they’ll need to support an additional type of life – crops.  However, it appears that even greenhouses on the surface won’t do enough to protect their plants from the deadly radiation of the Martian surface, at least according to a new paper published by researchers at Wageningen University and the Delft University of Technology.

Continue reading “Greenhouses Probably won’t Work on Mars Because of Cosmic Radiation. Even the Plants Will Have to Live Underground”

Scientists Have Developed a Way to Make Human Skin More Protected from Space Radiation

Earth is a radiation cocoon. Inside that cocoon, the atmosphere and the magnetosphere keep us mostly safe from the Sun’s radiaition. Some ultraviolet light gets through, and can damage us. But reasonable precautions like simply minimizing exposure can keep the Sun’s radiation at bay.

But space is a different matter altogether. Among the many hazards it poses to astronauts, ever-present radiation is one that needs a solution.

Now a team of researchers have developed a new biomaterial to protect astronauts.

Continue reading “Scientists Have Developed a Way to Make Human Skin More Protected from Space Radiation”

Cancer Risk for a Human Mars Mission Just Got a Lot Worse

Astronauts hoping to take part in a crewed mission to Mars might want to pack some additional rad tablets! Long before NASA announced their proposal for a “Journey to Mars“, which envisions putting boots on the Red Planet by the 2030s, mission planners have been aware that one of the greatest risks for such a mission has to do with the threat posed by cosmic and solar radiation.

But according to a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this threat is even worse than previously thought. Using a predictive model, this study indicates that astronauts that are the surface of Mars for extended periods of time could experience cell damage from cosmic rays, and that this damage will extend to other healthy cells – effectively doubling the risk of cancer!

The study, which was led by UNLV scientist Dr. Francis Cucinotta, was published in the May issue of Scientific Reports – under the title of Non-Targeted Effects Models Predict Significantly Higher Mars Mission Cancer Risk than Targeted Effects Models“. Building on conventional models that predict that DNA damage caused by radiation leads to cancer, their model looked at how such damage could spread throughout the body.

At one time, Mars had a magnetic field similar to Earth, which prevented its atmosphere from being stripped away. Credit: NASA

Galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) are one of the greatest hazards posed by space exploration. These particles, which originate from beyond our Solar System, are basically atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their surrounding electrons, thanks to their high-speed journey through space. In the cases of iron and titanium atoms, these have been known to cause heavy damage to cells because of their very high rates of ionization.

Here on Earth, we are protected from these rays and other sources of radiation thanks to our protective magnetosphere. But with missions that would take astronauts well beyond Earth, they become a much greater threat. And given the long-term nature of a mission to Mars, mitigation procedures and shielding are being investigated quite thoroughly. As Cucinotta explained in a UNLV press statement:

“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable. Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”

Previous studies have indicated that the effects of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays include cancer, central nervous system effects, cataracts, circulatory diseases and acute radiation syndromes. However, until now, the damage these rays cause was thought to be confined to those cells that they actually traverse – which was based on models that deal with the targeted effects of radiation. 

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

For the sake of their study, Dr. Cucinotta and Dr. Eliedonna Cacao (a Chemical Engineer at UNLV) consulted the mouse Harderian gland tumor experiment. This is the only extensive data-set to date that deals with the non-targeted effects (NTEs) of radiation for a variety of particles. Using this model, they tracked the effects of chronic exposure to GCRs, and determined that the risks would be twice as high as those predicted by targeted effects models.

“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” Cucinotta explained. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”

Naturally, any indication that there could be an elevated risk calls for additional research. As Cucinotta and Cacao indicated in their study, “The scarcity of data with animal models for tissues that dominate human radiation cancer risk, including lung, colon, breast, liver, and stomach, suggest that studies of NTEs in other tissues are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere.”

These studies will of course need to happen before any long-term space missions are mounted beyond Earth’s magnetosphere. In addition, the findings also raise undeniable ethical issues, such as whether or not these risks could (or should) be waived by space agencies and astronauts. If in fact we cannot mitigate or protect against the hazards associated with long-term missions, is it even right to ask or allow astronauts to take part in them?

In the meantime, NASA may want to have another look at the mission components for the Journey to Mars, and maybe contemplate adding an additional layer or two of lead shielding. Better to be prepared for the worst, right?

Further Reading: UNLV, Nature

How Far Away is Fusion? Unlocking the Power of the Sun

Best Energy?


I’d like to think we’re smarter than the Sun.

Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.

What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.

Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?

Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. When life appeared on Earth, the Sun would have been much different than it is now; a more intense, energetic neighbor. Image: NASA/SDO.
Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. Credit: NASA/SDO.

The trick to the Sun’s ability to generate power through nuclear fusion, of course, comes from its enormous mass. The Sun contains 1.989 x 10^30 kilograms of mostly hydrogen and helium, and this mass pushes inward, creating a core heated to 15 million degrees C, with 150 times the density of water.

It’s at this core that the Sun does its work, mashing atoms of hydrogen into helium. This process of fusion is an exothermic reaction, which means that every time a new atom of helium is created, photons in the form of gamma radiation are also released.

The only thing the Sun uses this energy for is light pressure, to counteract the gravity pulling everything inward. Its photons slowly make their way up through the Sun and then they’re released into space. So wasteful.

How can we replicate this on Earth?

Now gathering together a Sun’s mass of hydrogen here on Earth is one option, but it’s really impractical. Where would we put all that hydrogen. The better solution will be to use our technology to simulate the conditions at the core of the Sun.

If we can make a fusion reactor where the temperatures and pressures are high enough for atoms of hydrogen to merge into helium, we can harness those sweet sweet photons of gamma radiation.

Tokamak
Inside a Tokamak. Credit: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

The main technology developed to do this is called a tokamak reactor; it’s a based on a Russian acronym for: “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils”, and the first prototypes were created in the 1960s. There are many different reactors in development, but the method is essentially the same.

A vacuum chamber is filled with hydrogen fuel. Then an enormous amount of electricity is run through the chamber, heating up the hydrogen into a plasma state. They might also use lasers and other methods to get the plasma up to 150 to 300 million degrees Celsius (10 to 20 times hotter than the Sun’s core).

Superconducting magnets surround the fusion chamber, containing the plasma and keeping it away from the chamber walls, which would melt otherwise.

Once the temperatures and pressures are high enough, atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium just like in the Sun. This releases photons which heat up the plasma, keeping the reaction going without any addition energy input.

Excess heat reaches the chamber walls, and can be extracted to do work.

The spherical tokamak MAST at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (UK). Photo: CCFE

The challenge has always been that heating up the chamber and constraining the plasma uses up more energy than gets produced in the reactor. We can make fusion work, we just haven’t been able to extract surplus energy from the system… yet.

Compared to other forms of energy production, fusion should be clean and safe. The fuel source is water, and the byproduct is helium (which the world is actually starting to run out of). If there’s a problem with the reactor, it would cool down and the fusion reaction would stop.

The high energy photons released in the fusion reaction will be a problem, however. They’ll stream into the surrounding fusion reactor and make the whole thing radioactive. The fusion chamber will be deadly for about 50 years, but its rapid half-life will make it as radioactive as coal ash after 500 years.

External view of Princeton’s Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor which operated from 1982 to 1997. Credit: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (CC BY 3.0)

Now you know what fusion power is and how it works, what’s the current state, and how long until fusion plants give us unlimited cheap safe power, if ever?

Fusion experiments are measured by the amount of energy they produce compared to the amount of energy you put into them. For example, if a fusion plant required 100MW of electrical energy to produce 10 MW of output, it would have an energy ratio of 0.1. You want at least a ratio of 1. That means energy in equals energy out, and so far, no experiment has ever reached that ratio. But we’re close.

The EAST facility’s tokamak reactor, part of the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei. Credit: ipp.cas.cn

The Chinese are building the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or EAST. In 2016, engineers reported that they had run the facility for 102 seconds, achieving temperatures of 50 million C. If true, this is an enormous advancement, and puts China ahead in the race to create stable fusion. That said, this hasn’t been independently verified, and they only published a single scientific paper on the milestone.

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator. Credit: Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik, Tino Schulz (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany recently announced that their Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator (I love that name), heated hydrogen gas to 80 million C for only a quarter of a second. Hot but short. A stellarator works differently than a tokamak. It uses twisted rings and external magnets to confine the plasma, so it’s good to know we have more options.

The biggest, most elaborate fusion experiment going on in the world right now is in Europe, at the French research center of Cadarache. It’s called ITER, which stands for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, and it hopes to cross that magic ratio.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor. Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes

ITER is enormous, measuring 30 meters across and high. And its fusion chamber is so large that it should be able to create a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The energy released by the fusing hydrogen keeps the fuel hot enough to keep reacting. There will still be energy required to run the electric magnets that contain the plasma, but not to keep the plasma hot.

And if all goes well, ITER will have a ratio of 10. In other words, for every 10 MW of energy pumped in, it’ll generate 100 MW of usable power.

ITER is still under construction, and as of June 2015, the total construction costs had reached $14 billion. The facility is expected to be complete by 2021, and the first fusion tests will begin in 2025.

So, if ITER works as planned, we are now about 8 years away from positive energy output from fusion. Of course, ITER will just be an experiment, not an actual powerplant, so if it even works, an actual fusion-based energy grid will be decades after that.

At this point, I’d say we’re about a decade away from someone demonstrating that a self-sustaining fusion reaction that generates more power than it consumes is feasible. And then probably another 2 decades away from them supplying electricity to the power grid. By that point, our smug Sun will need to find a new job.

New Study Says Proxima b Could Support Life

Ever since the ESO announced the discovery of an extra-solar planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, scientists have been trying to determine what the conditions are like on this world. This has been especially important given the fact that while Proxima b orbits within the habitable zone of its sun, red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are known to be somewhat inhospitable.

And while some research has cast doubt on the possibility that Proxima b could indeed support life, a new research study offers a more positive picture. The research comes from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS) in Seattle, Washington, where astrobiologist Dimitra Atri has conducted simulations that show that Proxima b could indeed be habitable, assuming certain prerequisites were met.

Dr. Atri is a computational physicist whose work with the BMSIS includes the impacts of antiparticles and radiation on biological systems. For the sake of his study – “Modelling stellar proton event-induced particle radiation dose on close-in exoplanets“, which appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters – he conducted simulations to measure the impact stellar flares from its sun would have on Proxima b.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

To put this perspective, it is important to note how the Kepler mission has found a plethora of planets orbiting red dwarf stars in recent years, many of which are believed to be “Earth-like” and close enough to their suns to have liquid water on their surfaces. However, red dwarfs have a number of issues that do not bode well for habitability, which include their variable nature and the fact they are cooler and fainter than other classes of stars.

This means that any planet close enough to orbit within a red dwarf’s habitable zone would be subject to powerful solar flares – aka. Stellar Proton Events (SPEs) – and would likely be tidally-locked with the star. In other words, only one side would be getting the light and heat necessary to support life, but it would be exposed to a lot of solar protons, which would interact with its atmosphere to create harmful radiation.

As such, the astronomical community is interested in what kinds of conditions are there for planets like Proxima b so they might know if life has (or had) a shot at evolving there. For the sake of his study, Dr. Atri conducted a series of probability (aka. Monte Carlo) simulations that took into account three factors – the type and size of stellar flares, various thicknesses of the planet’s atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.

As Dr. Atri explained to Universe Today via email, the results were encouraging – as far as the implications for extra-terrestrial life are concerned:

“I used Monte Carlo simulations to study the radiation dose on the surface of the planet for different types of atmospheres and magnetic field configurations. The results are optimistic. If the planet has both a good magnetic field and a sizable atmosphere, the effects of stellar flares are insignificant even if the star is in an active phase.”

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.
This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO

In other words, Atri found that the existence of a strong magnetic field, which would also ensure that the planet has a viable atmosphere, would lead to survivable conditions. While the planet would still experience a spike in radiation whenever a superflare took place, life could survive on a planet like Proxima b in the long run. On the other hand, a weak atmosphere or magnetic field would foretell doom.

“If the planet does not have a significant magnetic field, chances of having any atmosphere and moderate temperatures are negligible,” he said. “The planet would be bombarded with extinction level superflares. Although in case of Proxima b, the star is in a stable condition and does not have violent flaring activity any more – past activity in its history would make the planet a hostile place for a biosphere to originate/evolve.”

History is the key word here, since red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri have incredible longevity (as noted, up to 10 trillion years). According to some research, this makes red dwarf stars good candidates for finding habitable exoplanets, since it takes billions of years for complex life to evolve. But in order for life to be able to achieve complexity, planets need to maintain their atmospheres over these long periods of time.

Naturally, Atri admits that his study cannot definitively answer whether our closest exoplanet-neighbor is habitable, and that the debate on this is likely to continue for some time. “It is premature to think that Proxima b is habitable or otherwise,” he says. “We need more data about its atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.”

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl
An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

In the future, missions like the James Webb Space Telescope should tell us more about this system, its planet, and the kinds of conditions that are prevalent there. By aiming its extremely precise suite of instruments at this neighboring star, it is sure to detect transits of the planet around this faint sun. One can only hope that it finds evidence of a dense atmosphere, which will hint at the presence of a magnetic field and life-supporting conditions.

Hope is another key word here. Not only would a habitable Proxima b be good news for those of us hoping to find life beyond Earth, it would also be good news as far as the existence of life throughout the Universe is concerned. Red dwarf stars make up 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies. Knowing that even a fraction of these could support life greatly increases the odds of finding intelligence out there!

Further Reading: MNRASL