Discussing Astronaut Radiation Health with Engineers

BMSIS ​Young Scientist Sneha Shirsat visited the College of Engineering in Pune, India (COEP) Astronomy Club to discuss the radiation risks astronauts face on long journeys.

Sneha’s engagement was part of her​ Communications requirements for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program. BMSIS is continuously committed to engaging the public in the wonders of Space Exploration and the Earth System. Our ​Young Scientist Program continues this tradition by engaging local communities around the world.

Read Sneha’s impressions below:

As young scientist program student at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, I was given as task to communicate our work to people. It was like making a child talk about his favorite toy and sharing the awesomeness of the toy to everyone! With a click of my mind, I decided to meet my undergrad college club: the COEP Astronomy club. What can be better than sharing your passion with a bunch of students who are as passionate as you are!

Few years ago, I was an actively involved in all the activities of the club right from star gazing to quiz challenges and lots of discussions. It was super exciting to be an alumni and return to campus sharing my experience of how I actually pursued my interest and channeled it towards astronomy. They were amazed to know how we co-ordinated between different US time zones and UK! Talking to space enthusiastic engineers was easy; they already knew technical terms like simulation, data parsing, radiation environment, etc. For most of the part, my work with Dr. Atri was coding and data analysis. To deliver knowledge about software and how to get the radiation environment simulated, which programming language to use was great too, went quite smooth.

The challenge was to give them a perspective. Why are we even doing this? What is the need to test effects of radiation when astronauts already have space-suits? Is the radiation harmful enough that people could suffer badly? Wow, we as engineers tend to be result oriented. Sending humans to Mars-check, building rockets-check, doing intensive calculus and mechanics math-check. But what about the actual process of a space-flight? This is the part where science dives in. Science makes this work.

To bring out the science behind all underlying assumptions was tricky. How do I explain the severity of this field? Sure, radiation due to a nuclear disaster can be comprehended. Let’s scale it down to a smaller dose but a continuous dose. I had to spend some time in making them think that it’s not a nuclear reactor out there, but a continuous dose of radiation, which is harmful if penetrated deep inside the body. I used examples of throwing a magnetic ball in a room with iron particle dust. Now imagine this ball to be very small, but very fast. How much iron dust would it attract? This is how high energy ions of elements, with their electrons stripped off, move in space at speed of light, grabbing electrons from anything that comes in their way – they can practically pass unimpeded through a space craft and into the skin of an astronaut. Silence and surprise. Everyone with big glare in their eyes were awed to see a whole new dimension that radiation has in a space flight.

Following this outlook in mind, their curiosity increased and so did their questions! It was amazing to see different angles everyone had in implementing safety engineering for astronauts! We could go from making better shielding suits, how about we create an EM field around the space craft to deflect the particles, how can we predict an event shower, how do we increase and decrease levels of protection depending on path that a spacecraft uses…and many many more. Seeing them so enthusiastic in thinking of ways to keep an astronaut safe was the best part of the discussion. Knowledge shared is knowledge gained indeed.

I went ahead in showing them an example of the simulation and software tools along with it. Some illustrations of radiation effects on human body and comparison charts made them get a clear idea of how a software can be used to simulate such environments and plan safety well ahead of long term space missions. We also discussed various ethical aspects of the effects on human body during space-flight, the risk astronauts take to serve a mission for technology and consequences of human colonization. I also shared my views on considering every living being on-board as an astronaut and encourage research on radiation effects on plants, animal embryos in the event of Mars colonization.

After showing our BMSIS website and profiles of such amazing scientists, of whom some are of engineering background, inspired them very much! I find myself lucky to have shared this knowledge and inspired a bunch of amateur astronomers. I wanted to show them that even if they are engineers now, there is an arena like BMSIS who encourage students to get the taste of space research and channel our thirst toward working in this field. I am hopeful that even if one of us actually turns successful in become amazing scientists like you all, it will be the best thing that can ever happen to a science lover! Thank you BMSIS for making me a part of you and making an aspiring astronomer’s dream come true.