5 mins read 13 Feb 2021

ANSTO commissions beam for space radiation and health research

ANSTO is developing a high-energy beam to shed light on the complex issue of space radiation and its effects on astronauts.

Credit: NASA.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has announced that it will commission a new beamline to simulate galactic cosmic radiation (GCR).

The project is two years in the making with a small team at the Centre for Accelerator Science, a facility within ANSTO, who have been working to expand the capability of their particle accelerator, ANTARES (Australian National Tandem Research Accelerator).

“ANSTO has a long history of achievements and excellence in technical expertise using the accelerators. The new beamline will benefit Australian and international collaborators,” says Professor David Cohen, who first conceived the project. 

As with any large project, it is rare for a research organisation to be working in isolation. The researchers at the Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO will be working with Dr Melanie Ferlazzo, a postdoctoral research fellow from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM). 

Dr Ferlazzo will be coordinating the project research along with the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES). This international partnership between the two national research organisations in Australia and France was announced in May of 2019.

The ANTARES Beamline

A view of the in-air enclosure where human cells can be exposed to radiation that simulate secondary particles created by galactic cosmic radiation striking the thermal shield of the International Space Station. Credit: ANSTO.

The ANTARES can generate ion beams of energies between 5 MeV to 10 MeV, with each beam containing a pure specimen of almost any isotope. One of the many purposes of the beam is to probe, identify and analyse the structure of materials.

Since its inception in 1989, the ANTARES has undergone various upgrades, including the installation of a heavy-ion microprobe beamline to generate a beam of heavier particles such as iron and aluminium, as opposed to hydrogen and helium. The beam is focused on an area micrometres wide.

Now, the ANTARES accelerator will get an exciting upgrade: the ability to focus the beam into a new chamber specifically built for irradiating biological samples and electrical components. This will allow scientists to simulate the space environment and observe the effects of simulated GCR on these samples. Eventually, the new beamline may provide insight on how space radiation affects the body, and what countermeasures could be used to protect astronauts in long-duration spaceflight. 

Space radiation comes from several different sources, including solar wind, solar flares, geomagnetically trapped radiation in the Van Allen Belts around the Earth, and galactic cosmic rays (GCR). 

The new beamline will simulate GCR, which is unique to the space environment. GCR comes from high-energy events that occur throughout the Universe, such as supernovae, and consists of particles like hydrogen, helium and iron nuclei, as well as galactic and cosmic waves which are some of the highest frequency waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. 

On Earth, we are protected by the magnetosphere which diverts most of the GCR away from the surface of our planet. It is only past the boundaries of low-Earth orbit where this radiation would be received full-pelt. 

Space radiation as a major research challenge

The Van Allen radiation belts (as at December 2003) that surround Earth, where trapped particles can cause havoc on electronics. Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Tom Bridgman.

Space radiation, let alone its effects on the human body, is notoriously difficult to research. Firstly, the dose of GCR at any point in space is variable over time. Additionally, once a GCR particle penetrates a material like the wall of a spacecraft, it splits into daughter particles which are smaller and faster than their parent particles. Because of the random and variable nature of this secondary radiation, not enough is known about it to simulate it accurately. 

Coupled with the challenging nature of radiation research, the effect of radiation on the human body is one of the issues in space medicine that will take the longest to find answers for, according to the NASA Human Research Program.

GCR also has deleterious effects on the astronaut’s life support systems including food, medications and electronic equipment. Since we have sent just over 500 astronauts to space over a relatively short amount of time, and since less than twenty of those astronauts have travelled beyond low-Earth orbit into true GCR territory, we lack the data to be able to determine the long-term effects of GCR on humans and equipment.

Given the enormous costs of going to space itself, the use of Earth-based radiation analogues is the next best research environment, and that’s where the ANTARES beamline comes in. Currently, it is only healthcare settings that have given reliable and long-term data on the effect of radiation on the body, but these facilities work with different types of radiation, such as X-rays, which are lower on the electromagnetic spectrum. On the contrary, Dr Ferlazzo expects the new ANTARES beamline “to be more representative” of radiation in space.

It is no secret that government agencies and private space companies are eager to send humans to the Moon and Mars within the next decade. Thus, the need to understand and protect humans from GCR has become urgent.

“It is very important to return astronauts safely to Earth in good health and fully understand the effects of long periods in space,” Ferlazzo says.