A better understanding of solar storms and how best to protect astronauts from space radiation is needed as NASA pushes toward manned missions to the moon and Mars in the coming decades, according to a new National Research Council report.
Researchers have been stepping up studies on radiation biology and space shielding in recent years, said the University of Colorado at Boulder's Daniel Baker, chair of the committee that issued an NRC report this week titled, "Space Radiation Hazards and the Vision for Space Exploration." The report probes the physical risks and technology obstacles of extended space journeys and is tied to a 2004 presidential mandate to return to the moon by 2020 and then send human travelers on to Mars, said Baker, director of CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
Baker, an internationally known space weather expert, said the report brought together space physicists and radiation biologists, amplifying common interests between the groups. "This was an important step," he said. "One of the benefits of this report is that we are beginning to lower the error bar on the health impacts of space radiation to astronauts, and are looking hard at other challenges like more accurate solar forecasting and improved space engineering techniques."
Astronauts are regularly exposed to high doses of radiation, including galactic cosmic rays -- thought to come from distant supernova explosions -- as well as energetic particles from the sun and charged particles trapped in Earth's magnetic field, he said.
Potential health effects include leukemia and other cancers, and degenerative tissue effects like cataracts, heart disease, digestive diseases and respiratory diseases, according to the report.
Radiation also can cause damage to the central nervous system and cause acute risks like vomiting and nausea, said Baker.