The Augustine Commission identified Galactic Cosmic Radiation, or Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR), as one of the high priority technical challenges facing the Deep Space program.
The GCR problem arises from interstellar atomic nuclei traveling near the speed of light striking the structure of a spacecraft. The resulting shower of secondary particles cause radiation damage. The Earth is protected by the Van Allen belts and a deep atmosphere. Brief journeys such as an Apollo mission does not expose the astronaut to dangerous dosages. However, astronauts on such a journey are at risk from Solar flares (Solar Particle Events – SPE). SPEs can be mitigated with layers of hydrogen rich materials such as polyethylene or water. GCRs, however, require spaceships on long journeys of more than 100 days, or habitats on the Lunar or Martian surface, to be surrounded by tens of meters of water for passive protection, or magnetic shields for active protection. Either solution is extremely heavy and makes space flight prohibitive in terms of propellant requirements.
The following sections discuss each aspect and provide references for further reading about the problem
The Source of GCR
Galactic Cosmic Rays come from outside our Solar System, but from within our galaxy, the Milky Way. They are comprised of atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their electrons. These nuclei can be any element. Common elements are carbon, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, and iron with similar abundances as the Solar System. Lithium, Berylium and Boron are overabundant relative to the Solar System ratios.
The Shielding Problem
Early on, it was suggested that cosmic rays could penetrate the Apollo spacecraft. From “Biomedical Results of Apollo” section IV, chapter 2, Apollo Light Flash Investigations we have the following account:
Crewmembers of the Apollo 11 mission were the first astronauts to describe an unusual visual phenomenon associated with space flight. During transearth coast, both the Commander and the Lunar Module Pilot reported seeing faint spots or flashes of light when the cabin was dark and they had become dark-adapted. It is believed that these light flashes result from high energy, heavy cosmic rays penetrating the Command Module structure and the crew members’ eyes. These particles are thought to be capable of producing, visual sensations through interaction with the retina, either by direct deposition of ionization energy in the retina or through creation of visible light via the Cerenkov effect.
When Galactic Cosmic Rays collide with another atom, such as those contained in the Aluminum, Stainless Steel or Titanium structures of a spacecraft, they can create a shower of secondary particles, These secondary particles cause radiation damage in living organisms (humans).
The problem is creating sufficiently powerful barriers to these extremely energetic nuclei.
- Compilation of Spacecraft Shielding papers by Simon G. Shepherd at the Dartmouth Thayer School of Engineering.
- Scientific American article on Shielding Space Travelers.
- Passive Shielding – At least for solar flares (SPE), some solutions are easier than the GCR problem.
- Active Shielding
- Fast Passage to avoid exposure (VASIMR propelled craft). A proposal for vapor core reactors integrated with VASIMR engines.
- A proposal for studying radiation and other factors associated with long term human occupation of space.
- NASA’s Space Radiation Program in association with the Brookhaven National Laboratories.
- In 2008, the National Academies of Science published Managing Space Radiation Risk in the New Era of Space Exploration, which included chapter 6: Findings and Recommendations
- From the Summary in Radiation Shielding Simulation For Interplanetary Manned Missions
Inflatable Habitat + shielding
- Hadronic interactions are significant, systematics is under control
- The shielding capabilities of an inflatable habitat are comparable to a conventional rigid structure – Water / polyethylene are equivalent
- Shielding thickness optimisation involves complex physics effects
- An additional shielding layer, enclosing a special shelter zone, is effective against SPE
- Regolith shielding limits GCR and SPE exposure effectively
- Its shielding capabilities against GCR can be better than conventional Al structures as in the ISS