Scientists Discover That Space Is Becoming Even Deadlier

Friday, 16 March 2018 - 11:37AM
Astrobiology
Science News
Friday, 16 March 2018 - 11:37AM
Scientists Discover That Space Is Becoming Even Deadlier
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Image Credit: MaxPixel
The origin of The Fantastic Four is one of the most iconic stories in comic books: A family of scientists steal an experimental spaceship, blast off into outer space, and are bombarded with cosmic rays until they mutate into bizarre new forms.

This is, to a certain extent, rooted in scientific fact. If you were to travel into space without proper shielding, cosmic rays would quite literally mutate your body. Unfortunately, that mutation would probably take the form of brain damage and other diseases.

Although astronauts have braved the dangers of cosmic radiation for decades, scientists warn that things are getting worse. Observing cosmic radiation levels, scientists from the University of New Hampshire's Space Science Center have discovered that space is getting more deadly with every passing day.

 

According to Nathan Schwadron, a professor at New Hampshire and lead author on a study detailing changes in cosmic ray potency:

Opening quote
"The radiation dose rates from measurements obtained over the last four years exceeded trends from previous solar cycles by at least 30 percent, showing that the radiation environment is getting far more intense. These particle radiation conditions present important environmental factors for space travel and space weather, and must be carefully studied and accounted for in the planning and design of future missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids and beyond."
Closing quote


The sun's solar rays ebb and flow periodically. Accordingly, the amount of radiation will also fluctuate, so there may well be more harmful cosmic rays bouncing around in space now than there were previously.

In practical terms, this is going to make manned space missions (such as trips to the moon and Mars) a lot more dangerous.



Particularly in the case of sending people to Mars, astronauts will have to spend a lot of time in space – which means increased exposure to cosmic rays that can be very harmful.

Solar radiation has disturbing effects on the human body. NASA conducted a study into genetics and space travel which found that astronaut Scott Kelly, after spending hundreds of days aboard the International Space Station, is no longer genetically identical to his twin, Mark. 7% of Scott's DNA has irreversibly been altered by his time in space. The long-term effects of this transformation remain to be seen (although they don't seem to have given him the power to turn invisible or stretch his body).

We've known for a while that solar radiation was going to increase. It's possible to predict these things based on trends in previous solar cycles but, as with a lot of weather monitoring, these predictions are difficult to get exactly right. Schwadron had expected solar radiation to increase by just 20%, but things are accelerating at a greater rate than anyone had anticipated.

The good news is that this radiation may do more than just warp astronauts' DNA. It's believed that cosmic rays may have played a part in creating the rich ingredients that first caused life to spark on Earth. It's possible that this increase in solar output could similarly help create new life forms in other parts of the solar system.

This is not much consolation to the scientists and astronauts who will risk their lives and health in space over the coming years, but at least it's something.
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