Making space exploration safer

(Edmonton) University of Alberta researchers have taken on a mission to make manned space exploration safer by measuring the threat of radiation to crews aboard the International Space Station.

The Canadian Space Agency awarded the U of A $250,000 to develop equipment to monitor the radiation levels outside the spacecraft. Radiation in space is made up of high-energy particles generated on the surface of the sun and in far-off galaxies, and can be lethal to those who come in contact with it.

The device is called the Canadian Sweeping Energetic Particle Telescope, or SWEPT. The U of A’s space physics researchers and engineering faculty are collaborating on the project and they have six months to come up with a concept design. If the Canadian Space Agency accepts the idea it could be manufactured into shoebox-sized hardware that will be attached to the exterior of the International Space Station.

Bob Fedosejevs, engineering professor and team lead, says SWEPT technology is badly needed. “Radiation levels inside the ISS are constantly monitored but what you really need is a device outside the spacecraft that measures incoming high-energy particles,” he said. “The more we know about the frequency and fluctuating intensity of solar and cosmic radiation, the better the shielding technology that can be developed.” 

Fedosejevs says the U of A’s concept design will rotate as much as 180 degrees so it can measure radiation at a wide angle coming towards the spacecraft.

NASA considers radiation shielding for astronauts a major concern for its long-term plan of sending crews back to the moon and then on to Mars. For decades it’s been widely accepted that the combined effects of cosmic and solar radiation could expose human space travelers to DNA damage, cancer, cataracts and neurological disorders.

Ian Mann, head of U of A’s space physics researchers on this project, says early manned space exploration missions that sent Americans to the moon were just lucky they didn’t encounter radiation problems. “If the astronauts were exposed to cosmic radiation for longer periods, or if their capsules had encountered a massive solar storm, there would have been serious consequences.”

The Canadian Space Agency is funding a total of six concept research projects for technology related to future space exploration ventures. The U of A is the only university among a field of private-sector space technology engineering firms on the agency’s list.

Mann says being chosen for the SWEPT project says a lot about the U of A’s future in the field of space-exploration technology.

“If the university can design a radiation experiment in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency and other space agencies and fly its technology at the International Space Station, we will be demonstrating our excellence in space science and space engineering,” said Mann. “To undertake key space-exploration challenges right here in Edmonton is an incredible, exciting opportunity.”