NASA Takes Radiation Shielding In Spacecraft Very Seriously: Here's How They Do It

An illustration of NASA's Voyager. Before a spacecraft gets launched into outer space, it goes through several testing. At the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, spacecraft are subjected to levels of radiation it will encounter throughout its mission.   ( NASA/JPL-Caltech, NASA/JPL-Caltech Photojournal )

In 2024, NASA will send astronauts to the surface of the Moon for the first time since the Apollo programs ended.

However, before any launch, the space agency is first making sure that each spacecraft that will deliver man or rover to destinations across the solar system, including the sun, can survive the harsh conditions in space.

Making A Spacecraft Radiation-Ready

Each spacecraft launched are designed to weather the different environment that it will encounter during a mission, whether it be extreme temperatures or space radiation.

"Based on where they're going, we tell mission designers what their space environment will be like, and they come back to us with their instrument plans and ask, 'Are these parts going to survive there?" said Megan Casey, an aerospace engineer at the Radiation Effects and Analysis Group at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. "The answer is always yes, no, or I don't know. If we don't know, that's when we do additional testing. That's the vast majority of our job."

First off, the engineers equip a spacecraft with parts hardened to survive radiation or use materials that are not susceptible to particle strikes. They use layered aluminum or titanium, for example, which slow down and prevent energetic particles from reaching the cargo.

Testing A Spacecraft

The Radiation Effects Facility is capable of imitating varying amounts of radiation. Engineers use computer models to trace how much radiation a spacecraft will face during its journey and when it arrives at its destination.

Before launch, a spacecraft goes through testing in the radiation facility. A component will be placed in a room where it will be blasted with a medley of energetic particles to see if it will survive radiation throughout its mission.

The engineers also watch out for slow degradation due to long-term exposure to mild but constant radiation.

After testing, the engineers might add shielding if needed. Shielding adds bulk and weight, raising fuel needs.

However, an encounters the most energetic particles would be a death sentence to a spacecraft. According to calculations, there is a once every 1,000 days chance that a traveling spacecraft would encounter such a blow.

In such a case, a common strategy at NASA is to pack multiples of the same parts that work together simultaneously. If one part stops working, the other will be able to continue the mission.

"Refining our models of space radiation ultimately helps us make better selection of devices," said Michael Xapsos, a member of the Project Scientist Team at NASA's Space Environment Testbeds."With more data, engineers can make better trades between risk, cost, and performance in the electronic devices they pick."

At the end f June, NASA will launch the Space Environment Testbeds, which will investigate space environment and determine how it will impact hardware performance.

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