Artist’s conception of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Moon. The Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) instrument is visible in the center of the image at the bottom left corner of the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA) Enlarge

June 11, 2013 — Space scientists from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) report that data gathered by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) show lighter materials like plastics provide effective shielding against the radiation hazards faced by astronauts during extended space travel. The finding could help reduce health risks to humans on future missions into deep space.

Aluminum has always been the primary material in spacecraft construction, but it provides relatively little protection against high-energy cosmic rays and can add so much mass to spacecraft that they become cost-prohibitive to launch.

The scientists have published their findings online in the American Geophysical Union journal Space Weather. Titled "Measurements of Galactic Cosmic Ray Shielding with the CRaTER Instrument," the work is based on observations made by the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) on board the LRO spacecraft. Lead author of the paper is Cary Zeitlin of the SwRI Earth, Oceans, and Space Department at UNH. Co-author Nathan Schwadron of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space is the principal investigator for CRaTER.

Says Zeitlin, "This is the first study using observations from space to confirm what has been thought for some time — that plastics and other lightweight materials are pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum. Shielding can't entirely solve the radiation exposure problem in deep space, but there are clear differences in effectiveness of different materials."

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