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There’s more harmful radiation in space than previously thought, UNH study says

UNH researchers used data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
UNH researchers used data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.NASA

Space travel just got even more complicated.

University of New Hampshire researchers recently concluded there’s at least 30 percent more dangerous radiation in our solar system than previously thought, which could pose a significant risk to both humans and satellites who venture there.

In their study, published Feb. 22 in the journal Space Weather, the researchers found that astronauts could experience radiation sickness or possibly more serious long-term health effects, including cancer and damage to the heart, brain, and central nervous system, said Nathan Schwadron, a space plasma physics professor at UNH and lead author of the study.

“Both concerns are very serious, but what we’re seeing in deep space is that over time, radiation seems to be getting worse,” Schwadron said.

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Why is it getting worse? The sun’s activity has been low, the lowest it’s ever been during the Space Age, which began in 1957 with the launching of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite.

That’s bad because an active sun intensifies the sun’s magnetic field, which shields our solar system from cosmic rays, the university said in a statement.

“When we started sending human beings to the moon in the late 50s, the solar activity cycles were fairly strong, so the number of cosmic rays were lower,” Schwadron said. “But now the cosmic rays number is going up.”

Scientists expect the solar activity levels to vary, but they don’t know why the current activity is so weak, he said.

The health problems caused by radiation can lead to other problems for space missions, he noted. “The health effects can affect the ability to make decisions for astronauts,” he said. “They can affect the way they interact operationally on a mission.”

Higher radiation can also end up causing failures of electronic hardware in spacecraft, he said.

The researchers collected radiation data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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For the average person, the research may also raise another alarming prospect: higher radiation in airplanes.

The radiation levels are still low compared with those in space, Schwadron said, but because planes are taking higher and higher routes, where there’s less atmosphere, it’s something the public should be aware of.

“The good thing about airlines is that we still have significant levels of atmosphere above an airplane, but . . . things are changing,” he said. “It’s something the airline industry has not really taken into account yet because it’s relatively new.”

Despite all this, Schwadron isn’t advocating for fewer missions into space. But his team is in the process of convening a panel of experts to determine what to do to address the new risks.

“This is really just something we need to understand so we can better plan for and design missions,” he said. “There are certain ways we can calculate to build better models, and that will allow us to better plan for what the needs are for spacecrafts and shielding.”


Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elisetakahama.