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ESA testing materials to shield astronauts from cosmic radiation


October 11, 2012

Astronauts manning a proposed deep space station on the far side of the Moon would need enhanced radiation protection (Image: NASA)

Astronauts manning a proposed deep space station on the far side of the Moon would need enhanced radiation protection (Image: NASA)

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With astronauts venturing beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic field exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation, the European Space Agency (ESA) has teamed with Germany’s GSI (Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung) particle accelerator in the search for materials to shield future astronauts going to the Moon, the asteroids and Mars, or manning a space station beyond the Moon. Amongst the candidates being assessed are Moon and Mars soil.

As well as galactic cosmic radiation consisting of atomic nuclei produced by dying stars, deep space also exposes astronauts to harmful radiation produced by the Sun in “solar particle events,” – but these are made up of protons that can be shielded relatively easily. Thankfully, the Earth’s magnetic field protects us, and those aboard the International Space Station (ISS) that orbits within the field, from the bulk of the harmful ionizing radiation that originates beyond our Solar System. But venture outside the magnetic field without protection and your cells are sure to take a beating.

Simply producing thicker and denser metal radiation shielding to protect astronauts isn’t necessarily the answer because high-ionizing high-energy particles – or HZEs – can produce showers of even more harmful secondary particles when striking metal shields.

This is why the ESA is conducting a two-year project to assess the most promising materials to provide shielding from this damaging radiation. Formally known as ROSSINI (Radiation Shielding by ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilisation) and/or Innovative Materials for EVA, Vehicle and Habitat), the project is using the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, which is the only European facility capable of simulating the high-energy heavy atomic nuclei found in galactic cosmic radiation.

However, the first round of testing was recently performed at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven in New York. The team has assessed various promising materials, including aluminum, water, polyethylene plastic, multilayer structures and simulated Moon and Mars material. The last two were chosen for examination due to their accessibility for planetary expeditions.

“We have also confirmed a new type of hydrogen storage material holds particular promise,” said Alessandra Menicucci, who is overseeing the project and notes that, “in general, the lighter a material’s atomic nuclei the better the protection.”

Using the Geant4 toolkit to simulate particles striking matter, the researchers found that water and polyethylene performed better than aluminum, while new hydrogen-rich materials originally developed by U.K.-based Cella Energy for storing hydrogen fuel performed even better.

The research will continue with the results to be made available for the planning of future manned space missions.

Source: ESA

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

why dont they use the same shielding they used 40 years ago when they went to the moon?

Artisteroi Rlsh Gadgeteer

It's a miracle the astronauts that went to the moon in the Apollo missions didn't get completely fried... oh wait...

Juan de la Cruz

Fiction: There is too much radiation in outer space for manned space travel.

Fact: This general charge is usually made by people who don't understand very much at all about radiation


Tony Smale

ARG- Those moon space suits did not have any radiation shielding according to the manufacturer.


The difference between a trip to the moon and a trip to mars is the time, the human body can withstand the radiation dose's involved in the trip to the moon. Going the Mars is a far longer trip though.

It still doesn't mean we shouldn't go, it is something we can overcome rather easily if the finance's were there.

Hugh Mcbroom
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