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NASA Lab Will Study Astronaut's Radiation.

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NASA Lab Will Study Astronaut's Radiation.
NASA Lab Will Study Astronaut's Radiation: Image credit: NASA.

NASA and the US Department of energy have set up a new laboratory to study the effect of radiation on astronauts as they fly outside the Earth’s protective atmosphere. Located at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, the $34 million NASA Space Radiation Laboratory will have 80 researchers annually. The teams will do a variety of experiments with the kinds of radiation found in space in hopes to better understand how it damages living tissue. This can help NASA predict risks and develop countermeasures when risking astronauts to long-term exposure to radiation.

Imagine a human spacecraft crew voyaging through space. A satellite sends a warning; energetic particles are being accelerated from the sun's corona, sending dangerous radiation toward their spacecraft, but the crew isn't worried. Long before their journey, researchers on Earth conducted experiments to accurately measure the hazards of space radiation and developed new materials and countermeasures to protect them.

To ensure the safety of spacecraft crews, NASA biologists and physicists will perform thousands of experiments at the new $34 million NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) commissioned today at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. The laboratory, built in cooperation between NASA and DOE, is one of the few facilities that can simulate the harsh space radiation environment.

"Scientists will use this facility as a research tool to protect today's crews on the International Space Station and to enable the next generation of explorers to safely go beyond Earth's protected neighborhood," said Guy Fogleman, director of the Bioastronautics Research Division, Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR), at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Space radiation produced by the Sun and other galactic sources is more dangerous and hundreds of times more intense than radiation sources, such as medical X-rays or normal cosmic radiation, usually experienced on Earth. When the intensely ionizing particles found in space strike human tissue, it can result in cell damage and may eventually lead to cancer.

Approximately 80 investigators will conduct research annually at the new facility. "The NSRL will enable us to triple the ability of researchers to perform radiobiology experiments and the resulting science knowledge," said Frank Cucinotta, the program scientist for NASA's Space Radiation Health Project at Johnson Space Center, Houston. "Scientists at universities and medical centers across the nation will use the facility to investigate how space radiation damages cells and tissues such as the eyes, brain and internal organs," he said.

For each experiment, an accelerator produces beams of protons or heavy ions. These ions are typical of those accelerated in cosmic sources and by the sun. The beams of ions move through a 328-foot transport tunnel to the 400-square-foot, shielded target hall. There, they hit the target, which may be a biological sample or shielding material.

"Physicists will measure how specific particles interact with shielding material, " said James Adams, the program scientist for the Space Radiation Shielding Program at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "We can use this knowledge to improve our ability to predict the effectiveness of various materials and to develop and test new materials."

At NSRL, the radiation health team will perform extensive tests with biological samples placed in the path of the radiation. They will use the information to understand mechanisms of radiation damage to cells, predict risks, and develop countermeasures that mitigate radiation effects. "Advances in radiation detection, shielding and other radiation-mitigation techniques may be applied to workers in space and on Earth and may lead to improved use of radiation to treat disease on Earth and prevent radiation-induced illnesses," Fogleman said.

Since the 1970s, NASA has been using particle accelerators to understand and mitigate the risks of space radiation. The NSRL will take advantage of the high-energy particle accelerators at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a DOE facility established in 1947. Construction of the new facility began in 1998, and was funded in part by NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research.

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