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Galactic Cosmic Ray Simulator Brings Space Down to Earth

NASA has created a space radiation simulator where researchers can speed up understanding of radiation risks astronauts face, and develop techniques to reduce those risks, as they head to the Moon under the Artemis Program and prepare for future missions to Mars.

A beam pipe at the NSRL at BNL

Based on new technology and an innovative design for creating a broad spectrum of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), the new space radiation simulator was developed through collaborations with world-leading space radiation researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

Beyond Earth’s protective magnetosphere, GCRs are an ever-present form of space radiation comprising energetic protons and heavier elements. It is extremely challenging to protect astronauts from GCRs, and exposure is one of the top health risks for deep space missions.

“It’s everything you see on the periodic table of elements — moving through space at high speed and energy,” said Tony Slaba, radiation researcher at Langley. “The spectrum of particles is very complex, and it covers a broad range of velocities that approach the speed of light. It’s there all the time and the high energies make it almost impossible to shield against.”

The GCR simulator uses new technology that allows researchers to test multiple ion beams at one time to accurately represent the radiation conditions that an astronaut is exposed to in a spacecraft. Optimizing the GCR simulation required combining data on environmental space radiation fields with complex computational modeling of how GCRs move through spacecraft and interact with the human body.

“Past research had only been able to look at a single ion and the question was, how do you add all of your results together to mimic what actually happens in space,” said Lisa Simonsen, a Langley researcher. “This technology is a game changer in that we can put those ions together to simulate the actual space radiation environment for experiments and use these results to validate computational models. With all teams using the same composition, we can cross compare between labs and confirm results.”

Validating models will help improve risk assessments and develop countermeasures to help keep crew members healthy on their missions and throughout their lives when they return to earth.

Aerial image of NSRL at BNL

“Our understanding of some health risks in space are still evolving, and the simulator will help us understand the risks more quickly,” Slaba said.

Artemis missions to the Moon will help prepare for longer trips to Mars, where a round trip journey may take as long as three years. Longer trips mean higher doses of radiation, and while the risks for cancer are generally understood, other risks such as those to the central nervous system and cardiovascular system are not as well known.

“Understanding risks in a relevant environment is essential to validating permissible radiation exposure limits and how to reduce radiation health risks,” Simonsen said.

In addition to enabling space exploration, the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory and the technology developed for the GCR simulator also have Earth applications, including space electronics testing for deep space planetary missions and use by the National Cancer Institute in their research on advanced heavy ion therapy to potentially treat cancer patients.

“As a biologist I’m interested in how living systems are impacted by space radiation exposure. Now we can take cells and look at what happens when more than one type of ion passes through. Is there 6 times the impact or 16 times?” added Peter Guida, researcher at BNL. “Is there DNA damage, change in gene expression? It’s a marvel the way it works. What would have taken four hours we can now do in two minutes.”

Simonsen, Slaba and their colleagues published their findings in an article available in online release through the PLOS Biology open access journal.