May 19 (UPI) -- Galactic cosmic rays are everywhere, but they're also elusive. They're hard to block and come in a variety of forms, making them quite difficult to study.
To keep astronauts and deep-space missions safe, NASA needs to better understand the health risks posed by all sorts of space radiation, including galactic cosmic rays. But instead of studying galactic cosmic rays in space, researchers at NASA are working to replicate the rays in the lab.
In a new study, published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers describe a new method for producing realistic galactic cosmic rays in the lab.
"This achievement marks a significant step forward and enables a new era of radiobiology research to accelerate our understanding and mitigation of health risks faced by astronauts during long duration exploration or interplanetary travel to Mars," researchers said in a press release.
Galactic cosmic rays are composed of high-energy protons and helium ions, as well as a mix of high-energy ions derived from everything from lithium to iron. When they collide with spacecraft and astronauts, they create a variety of particles.
The rays and the particles they produce can damage tissue, and scientists are concerned that prolonged exposure to galactic cosmic rays could harm the cardiovascular system and cause neurological disorders.
Scientists have previously tried to study galactic cosmic rays in the lab but have struggled to replicate the kinds of radiation found in space. One of the problems is that current beam technologies struggle to produce the kind of particle diversity unique to galactic cosmic rays.
For the new study, researchers used fast beam switching and updated controls systems technology to rapidly and repeatedly generate diverse combinations of multiple ion-energy beams.
As scientists wrote in their paper, the new simulator can generate a "spectrum of ion beams that approximates the primary and secondary [galactic cosmic radiation] field experienced at human organ locations within a deep space vehicle."
Researchers used their new beam technology to produce 33 sequential beams featuring four proton energies, four helium energies and five heavy ions of carbon, oxygen, silicon, titanium and iron.
Scientists have already begun exposing animal models to the simulated galactic cosmic radiation fields, with hopes of identifying the effects of these high-energy particles on organ tissue and gauge the risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders.
"Over the past 30 years, most research on understanding space radiation-induced health risks has been performed using acute exposures of mono-energetic single-ion beams. Now a mixed field of ions can be studied collectively in the same animal cohort, thereby drastically reducing the number of animals, husbandry, and research costs," scientists said.