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Friday, 22 November 2013

Individual Project Plan: Space Radiation and Shielding Research

Shields up! Red alert!

If you're a Star Trek fan, you'll recognize these words as popular commands given in the franchise. Used to heighten the tension in the drama, these orders also raised the spaceship's defenses. But, besides alien attack, and possible space debris, what other purposes can spaceship shields have?

Well, this is actually the focus of my Individual Project here at the ISU! As mentioned in a previous post here, I submitted a proposal to investigate space radiation, and my proposal was approved! I just finished my project plan and this post will outline some of my work and process so far.
When planning this research project, it is important to answer some questions. These questions may include:
  • What is space radiation?
  • Why should we study it?
  • What has been done before?
  • What gaps exist in our knowledge?
To answer the first question, space radiation is being defined here as any ionizing, high energy photons, protons, electrons, and electromagnetic waves coming from the Sun, our galaxy, and beyond. For an excellent 3 minute lesson on radiation, please check out this video. There are many specific sources of this radiation, and it is constantly striking the Earth, Mars, and everything else.

Artist conception of solar radiation (yellow) striking the Earth's magnetosphere (blue/purple)
Answering why we should study it can be broken into two answers, the latter of which being more practical. First, studying space radiation improves our understanding of the universe and how it works which develops science and technology. More practically, exposure to radiation can have detrimental effects on spacecraft and on human health. Since 1994, US pilots and flight attendants have been classified as "radiation workers" (full BBC article here), because higher altitudes are less shielded by Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere. Not to mention that there is growing evidence that these natural shields are being broken down by human action and pollution. If this continues, even sunblock may not be able to protect us from the harmful radiation coming from space.

And that's here, on Earth. If we wished to "boldly go where no one has gone before", say to Mars, the risk of radiation may be too high as we currently understand it. NASA recently admitted that radiation risk is "the elephant in the room", the biggest problem currently unaddressed.

The last two questions listed above will be focused upon throughout my project. For the past few years, I have been reading books and journal articles about space radiation, spacecraft design, and spacecraft shielding. My research had not been part of any official project, it was something with which I was interested and so my progress was slow as spare time was sparse. My findings revealed that space radiation research was nothing new, but that the information was sporadic. I thought it would be a rather straightforward concept, that a book would exist which outlined the properties of space radiation, the risks, and discuss various spacecraft shielding techniques used and proposed, however I could not find such a book and I am interested in cataloging this information.

Therefore, the aim of my project is to research space radiation, its impact on humans and materials, and shielding strategies used and proposed. In doing so, I shall improve my understanding of this topic and be more qualified to work (or perform more research) in this field. I have assigned roughly one month to each topic, the goal being to draft a report of my findings at each deadline. The entire project cannot simply be research and that is why I have decided that the later portion of my project will involve applying what I have learned toward developing a shielding strategy for a Martian colony.
Chesley Bonestell has some beautiful Space Art.
Why a Martian colony? Well, the choice was arbitrary but there are some reasons to support the choice. The first is that there have been many proposals for One Way Mars Trips, and if further development continues in this area, shielding strategies will have to be developed. The second reason is that I am currently involved with a team project investigating such one way trips so this research will help me greatly.

The first step has been completed, is in fact due today, and that's the Project Plan. Outlining and expanding on the above, the main purpose of the plan is to document what I wished to accomplish and to set a schedule for myself. Along with the literature reviews, the main deliverables, the main things to be delivered at the end of the project, are a final report and a presentation. Along the way, I will likely investigate various options for employment, internships, and research and, should there be enough support for it, I might consider publishing my work in a journal and/or presenting my material at conferences. There are many opportunities out there for someone as dedicated and enthused as myself, honestly the most difficult aspect will be sorting through all the opportunities and find one which is best suited for me.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, feel free to leave them here or email me. In the meantime, I will likely be scouring all the books I can find. I'm looking forward to understanding more and sharing with you!


  1. Hi Dallas,

    Came across your blog following a chain of links from ISU website or twitter and learned you are looking for some resources on space radiation.
    I don't know your background but the following book is a good source to learn about ionizing radiation in general:
    Atoms, Radiation, and Radiation Protection by James Turnur
    you can find it at the ISU library.

    And for more space radiation related information check these out:
    NCRP Report No.98: Guidance on Radiation Received in Space Activities
    NCRP Report No.153: Iinformation Needed to Make Radiation Protection Recommendations for Space Missions Beyond Low-Earth Orbit
    ISU library should have them too, in electronic format. I remember Muriel kindly ordered them a few years ago.

    good luck!

  2. Thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time and effort to let me know! I will definitely check those out!