Weighting for a cosmic radiation breakthrough

An advanced material originally developed to shield medical staff from harmful levels of radiation could be used to cut the weight of space vehicles and aircraft, claims its developer.


An advanced material originally developed to shield medical staff from harmful levels of radiation could be used to cut the weight of space vehicles and aircraft, claims its developer.


The material, formulated by researchers at Germany’s Bayer MaterialScience, is being used in the development of lightweight replacements for the lead aprons worn by radiographers.


But Bayer’s Dr Heinz Pudleiner said it could eventually be used in aerospace applications to protect aircraft passengers and astronauts from cosmic radiation.


Aluminium is currently used as cosmic radiation shielding, but Pudleiner claimed that the new material, an additive powder based on rare Earth elements, promises to provide the same level of protection — at a third of the weight.


Cosmic radiation is a mixture of different forms of radiation generated by the sun and the stars. While the majority of radiation reaching Earth is deflected by its magnetic field, the intensity of the radiation increases significantly outside the reach of the planet’s magnetic field — where it poses something of a risk for astronauts and can cause malfunctions in electronic systems.


There is also some evidence that cosmic radiation can lead to a very slightly increased risk of cancer in frequent flyers such as aircrew.


Following promising terrestrial experiments, in which cosmic radiation was simulated using combinations of X-rays and radioactivity, the new material is being put through perhaps its most severe test yet aboard a satellite.


Scientists from the Atomic Institute of Austria are quantifying the shielding effect by measuring the radiation dose in front of and behind samples of the material. The group is still awaiting test results.


It is thought that protection from cosmic radiation would be critical on a manned mission to Mars, as the capsule would be exposed to a particularly high dose of radiation on the long journey. But while the material may hold great potential for such applications, it is likely to make its commercial debut in the medical arena. Pudleiner confirmed that he is currently talking to a number of manufacturers of X-ray shielding equipment.