NASA says it is giving Colorado State University a grant of $9 million to help determine the potential cancer risks of long-term exposure to radiation in space, such as astronauts on a manned Mars mission might face.
CSU will build a research center, unique in the world, where a neutron radiation facility will simulate low-dosage, long-term exposure to high-energy space radiation the crew of a multiyear journey to the Red Planet can expect.
The center will be one of three new NASA Specialized Centers of Research taking part in studies of the subject.
"NASA is asking, 'Are the cognitive effects of space radiation exposure going to jeopardize the mission?' " explains Michael Weil of the university's Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.
"Safety guidelines [currently] ensure that astronauts are not exposed to radiation that will increase their risk of developing a fatal cancer by more than 3 percent, but a 3-year Mars mission will exceed this limit," says Weil, who will serve as CSU's lead scientists on the project.
The amount of radiation exposure is increased as the time of a mission in space increases, Weil says, and astronauts will encounter high-energy cosmic rays that cannot be shielded by any current spacecraft or spacesuit.
On Earth, humans are shielded from such cosmic rays by the planet's magnetic field and its atmosphere.
The 5-year CSU research project will take place in an existing gamma-ray laboratory on the school campus that will be renovated for the study, school officials say.
At the heart of the upgraded facility, inside a secure and well-shielded room, the researchers will install an irradiator capable of emitting low amounts of neutrons.
In the facility, experiments will see mice exposed to those low levels of radiation for as many as 400 days, building up doses equal to what mission crews would experience during long space journeys.
"Neutrons are not identical to space radiation, but they're a close approximation," project investigator Thamos Borak says. "They are an excellent surrogate for the complex radiations that would be encountered in deep space."
The researchers will analyze the impact neutron radiation has on the central nervous system and look for biomarkers that may indicate the chances of an astronaut developing cancer once returned to Earth.
One of Weil's colleagues, Susan Bailey, is one of 10 researchers working with NASA to study the effects of radiation on astronaut Scott Kelly, who began a one-year stay on the International Space Station on March 27.