As countries prepare to expand humanity’s presence to new locations in the solar system, astronauts will need to overcome the risks associated with prolonged exposure to space radiation.
The last time a human has ventured beyond low-Earth orbit? December 1972.
So, if countries are planning future missions to the Moon or even Mars, two Bruce County scientists know there’s work to be done in addressing the knowledge gap in space radiation.
Dr. Eric Johnston, Chief Innovation Officer at the Nuclear Innovation Institute (NII), and Dr. Andrei Hanu, Senior Scientist at Bruce Power, along with Dr. Soo-Hyun Byun, Professor at McMaster University, have helped lead a team of students from McMaster design and create a small satellite to measure space radiation.
A project years in the making, the team saw their hard work launch on a SpaceX rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday, March 14th. The satellite will travel to the International Space Station, where astronauts will then release it into orbit around the Earth.
The trouble with space radiation: “From a human health perspective, exposure to space radiation is one of the top 10 challenges we must contend with if humans are travelling beyond low-Earth orbit,” said the former NASA research astrophysicist Dr. Hanu.
Radiation outside of Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetosphere is more intense and contains particles of significantly higher energy than what people receive each day on this planet. On a mission to Mars, for example:
- It takes six to nine months to get there
- Then astronauts would wait until Mars and Earth’s orbits are aligned, so they would stay on the planet for about a year
- Then add in another six to nine months back
That means two to three years in space.
Each year on Earth, the average person receives radiation equal to about 300 dental x-rays, from sources like solar winds and cosmic rays, air travel and health procedures, as well as natural radiation from the planet itself.
But those two to three years in space could mean a radiation dose of two to three sieverts—that’s 200,000 to 300,000 times higher than a dental x-ray. Or, according to the American College of Radiology, two to three times as high as a person should receive in their entire lives.
And the effects of that dose? One sievert increases a person’s likelihood of fatal cancer by 5%, so for an astronaut travelling beyond Earth’s atmosphere, that’s a massive increase in risk.
In Canada, the dose limit to the public as a result of nuclear plant operations is one millisievert (1/1000 of a sievert) in one calendar year. Regular reporting and monitoring by Canada’s nuclear regulator demonstrate the average annual effective doses to the public range from 0.001 to 0.002 millisieverts per year and between 0.5 to 0.7 millisieverts for nuclear plant workers.
A new type of radiation detector: With funding from Bruce Power through the Environment@NII program and supported by NII, Drs. Johnston and Hanu worked with the McMaster team to develop the NEUtron DOSimetry & Exploration—or NEUDOSE (pronounced “new dose”) satellite.
The satellite is about the size of a loaf of bread. Inside it is the actual measuring instrument, which behaves like regular human fat tissue would, absorbing space radiation and relaying those measurements to us on Earth. What separates the NEUDOSE instrument from other detectors is its capability to measure both the radiation dose and the type of the radiation that caused it, which is important when looking at the long-term risks of ionizing radiation.
“By understanding the risks through projects like NEUDOSE,” said Dr. Hanu. “We can design shielding that is more effective and figure out how to get the most out of the heavy radiation shielding in a spacecraft.”
Dr. Johnston agrees: “Once the satellite begins reporting data in the coming months, we hope to make some major scientific findings that will help us develop better radiation instruments that enhance an astronaut’s situational awareness and the type of radiation they are exposed to.”
“With a diverse team of McMaster students and professors, industry experts and the Canadian Space Agency, this innovation project is an example of years-long collaboration to create a unique instrument,” said Dr. Johnston. “We are very grateful for the ongoing support of Bruce Power and NII’s other Founding Members.”
“We’re excited to support this important research that will have impacts far beyond our traditional borders and into the realm of space which is truly inspiring,” said Danielle Lacroix, Senior Director at Bruce Power. “The fact this project aims to enhance the safety of astronauts aligns closely with our values, and along with our founding partners at NII, we watched the March 14th launch closely to help increase our collective understanding in this fascinating area of science.”
Learn more about other Environment@NII research projects by visiting nii.ca/environment-at-nii and follow NII on social media to stay up to date on the NEUDOSE satellite’s activities: on Twitter (@OntarioNII), on LinkedIn (Nuclear Innovation Institute), on Facebook (@OntarioNII) and on Instagram (@niiexplore).
About the Nuclear Innovation Institute: The Nuclear Innovation Institute (NII) seeks to accelerate the pace of innovation in Canada’s energy industry and is a champion for opportunities that help students and adults embrace new knowledge and gain the tools they will need to make positive change in their communities and the world.