June 12, 2013, 1:50 PM —
Image credit: Flickr/LLACERTAE
There are a number of known -- and certainly unknown -- risks involved in extended space travel, but perhaps the biggest hazard of all is radiation.
With no atmosphere in deep space to filter out radiation from the sun and other sources, astronauts face potentially deadly levels of solar particles and cosmic rays. It's because of this and other health risks that I argue for extreme caution in mankind personally exploring space. Why send people on a suicide mission?
I've been waiting for scientists to invent some kind of miracle radiation shield from rare, space-agey materials. Now it turns out there's a potential solution to radiation right in front of our noses.
From the University of New Hampshire:
Space scientists from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) report that data gathered by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) show lighter materials like plastics provide effective shielding against the radiation hazards faced by astronauts during extended space travel. The finding could help reduce health risks to humans on future missions into deep space.
The researchers published their findings in the American Geophysical Union journal Space Weather.
While aluminum has been the default material for building spacecraft, it's relatively useless in providing a shield for high-energy cosmic rays. Aluminum also adds a lot of mass.
Cary Zeitlin of the SwRI Earth, Oceans, and Space Department at UNH, who is lead author of the report, called it "the first study using observations from space to confirm what has been thought for some time—that plastics and other lightweight materials are pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum."
"Shielding can't entirely solve the radiation exposure problem in deep space, but there are clear differences in effectiveness of different materials," Zeitlin said in a statement.
And it's not just plastic that would work as a radiation shield. "Anything with high hydrogen content, including water, would work well," Zeitlin said.
Water, of course, would be heavy and impractical. But plastic is lightweight and cheap. It would, however, be able to handle the structural rigors of prolonged spaceflight before we start launching it into space with people inside, no matter how many people want to be on a reality TV show.