They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially 'colonized' it. So technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” We hear you Mark Wattney, we really do! Matt Damon and The Martian make us dream about life on Mars, but before we are truly successful in colonizing other planets, we need to deal effective radiation shielding materials.
Sounds like a distant dream considering we’re still dealing with radiation literacy issues as a society. Let’s take the example of x-ray body scanners found in airports around the world. But the EU banned the use of these devices due to radiation concerns back in 2011! You’d suddenly want to stay away from these devices, but passengers are exposed to 40 times the dose spending an hour in an airplane! Despite this, radiation poisoning really isn’t a cause for concern while flying.
Still when it comes to flying into space, radiation exposure and radiation shielding is actually a huge concern. To help you better understand the problem, let’s consider the dangers that radiation poses to the human body.
Effects of Radiation are Different Beyond Earth’s Orbit
Exposure to radiation is a huge cause of concern for those dreaming about deep space travel. A study published in the Scientific Reports Journalshows that Apollo astronauts have a shorter life expectancy due to larger incidences of cardiovascular diseases. Without eliminating radiation poisoning, we simply cannot think about venturing into the solar system. You’d argue that hundreds of people have traveled into space, but you need to understand that just 24 people have actually traveled beyond the Low Earth Orbit, and studies HAVE shown that these 24 travelers suffered from adverse clinical outcomes when compared to other astronauts due to the absence of effective radiation shielding materials.
Categorizing Space Radiation
The different types of radiation found in deep space include x-rays, gamma rays, UV rays and atomic nuclei. Radiation can also be categorized depending on where it’s located or where it comes from. The sun also throws out energy particles into space, and these solar events also give birth to a type of radiation known as Galactic Cosmic Radiation which typically fills space. This might not be as strong as a large solar particle event, but it is always present, making it a huge concern that might not kill right away, but certainly pose serious long-term consequences.
Protection Against Radiation in Space
The geomagnetosphere is one of the most important layers of protection shielding life on earth from the devastating impacts of radiation. This region is produced by the planet’s magnetic field and it completely surrounds the planet. Radiation particles are trapped in the geomagnetosphere and deflected around the planets in certain patterns. Uncharged radiation such as gamma rays can pass through this shield, but that’s when the atmosphere comes into play, further protecting life on the planet. This means that in order to make your Mars missions a reality we not only need effective radiation shielding materials, we need to make sure we’re using adequate gamma ray shielding measures as well!
The Concepts of Radiation Shielding
Most Mars enthusiasts are aware of the need for radiation shielding materials before human settlements can dream of venturing into outer space. Mars has a thinner atmosphere, and therefore, the first settlers or the robots preceding them need to place habitat modules in deep ditches and over them with thick layers of dirt to keep colonists safe from the dangers of radiation. Experts believe that space settlements could see domes covering farms, but the skylines you see in many artist conceptions of life in Mars will certainly never get the chance to develop. Think of this as the DC metro minus the construction above ground.
While this sounds doable enough, the same cannot be said about space vessels. We simply cannot cover outer walls with dirt as there are certain weight restrictions and while there are ideas to use radiation shielding materials using waste material and ship designs, humans simply haven’t found an answer to the dangers posed by Galactic Cosmic Radiation despite making major breakthroughs in radiation shielding in the recent past.
Simply put, before dreaming about life on Mars, we need to make radiation shielding and gamma ray shielding a reality. Only when we can be confident of having adequate radiation protection, will we be able to put together interplanetary missions.