The results of high-altitude radiation studied by NASA scientists are out, and they reflected the effects of cosmic radiation on the Earth's atmosphere.

Unlike radiation protection when on the ground, cruising through the atmosphere of the stratosphere exposes to a damaging effect on humans and machines.

The results of the study are expected to improve radiation monitoring for supporting pilots and aviation industry crew so that frequent flyers, including passengers, can be protected from potentially high-radiation environments.

The results of the study were published in the Space Weather Journal.

RaD-X Mission

The Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X) of NASA was launched in September 2015 in New Mexico, and it took high-altitude measurements to assess the movement of cosmic radiation through Earth's atmosphere.

The mission undertook measurements of altitudes up to 120,000 feet above Earth.

Even while cruising at 36,000 feet high above clouds and in sheer emptiness, an aircraft still has cosmic rays of high-energy sweeping down from outer space and hitting the molecules in the atmosphere, triggering "particle decays."

"The measurements, for the first time, were taken at seven different altitudes, where the physics of dosimetry is very different," said Chris Mertens, principal investigator of the mission at Hampton's Langley Research Center of NASA.

High-Energy Particles

In terms of origin, cosmic radiation comes beyond the solar system, though the sun also emits high-energy particles during solar storms.

The cosmic rays are normally blocked by the huge magnetic barrier exerted by the magnetosphere, preventing the radiation from reaching the Earth.

However, such particles still breach magnetosphere and hit molecules of oxygen and nitrogen, causing them to decay into different particles through electromagnetic cascades.

It has been observed that decay of particles is intense at an altitude of 60,000 feet, where a cluster of radiation particles called Pfotzer maximum is created.

Radiation is measured by its quantity in the atmosphere and the basis it inflicts on tissues. The second is known as the "dose equivalent," which used in assessing health risks. 

Together, the high-energy particles and decay particles pose serious health threats to humans, including DNA rupture and release of free radicals that upset cellular functions.

Advantage Of The Study

The study assessed the dose equivalent rate at different altitudes and noticed a hike at the higher atmospheres irrespective of the size of the Pfotzer maximum.

Given the hazard faced by aircrew and astronauts in terms of exposure to higher radiation levels compared to the peers at the ground, monitoring of cosmic radiation levels is a high priority.

The RaD-X data will be useful in taking the existing weather models to the next level, especially the Nowcast of Atmospheric Ionizing Radiation for Aviation Safety.

For commercial air pilots, improved radiation monitoring is a boon, as advance alerts can help them in navigating the aircraft suitably.

During the NASA mission, instruments such as the Teledyne TID detector and RaySure detector were also tested with an intent to install them on commercial flights in the future.

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