The Effects of Deep Space Radiation


HOUSTON, Texas (Ivanhoe Newswire) – Over the last 60 years, space travel has grown in leaps and bounds – from our first step on the moon in 1969 to sending the first tourist to space. Now, the race is on to land an astronaut on Mars, but could this type of deep space travel have long-lasting and devastating consequences on an astronaut’s health? NASA is working to find out about deep space radiation.

Mark Vande Hei returned from the International Space Station after spending 355 days in space, ending his history making space flight. But it will take nearly three times that long to send a person to Mars, exposing them to deep space radiation.

“Space radiation is a completely different beast compared to x-rays and gamma rays,” radiation biologist at the University of Texas Science Center at San Antonio, Sandeep Burma, emphasizes.

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Researchers at UT Health San Antonio are working to find out how space radiation affects the cancer risk of astronauts, especially when it comes to a type of aggressive brain tumor called glioblastoma.

Burma explains, “The nuclei of atoms are especially dangerous. They are essentially moving at nearly the speed of light, and they’re highly penetrating.”

In fact, the radiation goes straight through an astronaut’s helmet, protective shields, and their brains.

“Astronauts report seeing flashes of light and those flashes of light are caused by these ions hitting their, brain cells,” Burma adds.

Burma’s team used a particle accelerator to mimic the effects of the radiation in deep space. Preliminary studies in mice show it does trigger tumors.

Burma says, “Even very small doses of space radiation can be very, very carcinogenic.”

This doesn’t mean we can’t travel to Mars; it means we have to find ways to protect the men and women going there.

This study is not only relevant for astronauts, but also to the medical field, since ionizing radiation, even low doses from CT scans, have been reported to increase the risk of brain tumors.

Contributors to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer, Editor.

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REPORT:       MB #5055

SPACE RADIATION BACKGROUND: Space radiation is comprised of atoms in which electrons have been stripped away as the atom accelerated in interstellar space to speeds approaching the speed of light where eventually only the nucleus of the atom remains.

Space radiation is made up of three kinds of radiation: particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, particles shot into space during solar flares, and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our solar system. All of these kinds of space radiation represent ionizing radiation. Astronauts are exposed to ionizing radiation with effective doses in the range from 50 to 2,000 mSv. One mSv of ionizing radiation is equivalent to about three chest x-rays. So the exposure is equivalent to 150 to 6,000 chest x-rays.


DIAGNOSING: The biological effects of acute and chronic radiation exposure vary with the dose. An average background radiation dose received by an average person can be approximately 3 mSv/year without causing detectable harm while an exposure of 1 Sv/hour can result in radiation poisoning, with signs such as nausea and vomiting. A person exposed to 100 mSv has a roughly 1 in 200 chances of developing cancer later in life, while a 1,000 mSv dose will cause cancer in about 1 in 20 people. Receiving 3,000 to 5,000 mSv in a matter of minutes can result in death in 50% of the cases. A person that experiences a massive 10,000 mSv dose will risk death in a matter of just a few days or weeks. Both acute and chronic exposure to such large doses can cause bleeding and inflammation due to lowered platelet counts. Reduced fertility or permanent sterility could also result from radiation exposure. In addition to causing damage at the tissue, organ, and whole organism level, radiation has the ability to destroy molecules like DNA.


NEW STUDY: Could deep-space radiation seriously affect the human brain? In a study, led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, male mice exposed to simulated galactic cosmic radiation, high-energy radiation in space more commonly known as deep-space radiation, experienced impaired spatial learning. Spatial learning in mice is similar to declarative memory in humans, or the ability to remember what happens day to day. The female mice in the study did not show spatial learning impairments. The team also evaluated the mice’s behavior and indicators of anxiety, sociability and social memory but observed no changes.

The researchers were able to identify a blood biomarker that could be used to predict which male mice could be at risk of cognitive effects. They also found that, by temporarily depleting brain immune cells after exposure, it could help to mitigate some of the effects seen in these male mice.



Will Sansom

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Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Sandeep Burma, Professor of Neurosurgery, Biochemistry and Structural Biology

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