The Universe in the Laboratory: ESA and FAIR form partnership for researching cosmic radiation
One of the key questions that need to be addressed regarding the future of human spaceflight as well as robotic exploration programs is how cosmic radiation affects human beings, electronics, and materials. The detailed investigation of this topic is one of the main tasks that must be accomplished in order to provide astronauts and space systems with effective protection. To achieve this goal, the European Space Agency (ESA) will be cooperating closely in the future with the international accelerator center FAIR (Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research GmbH), which is currently being built at GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt. On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, the two partners signed a corresponding cooperation agreement at the GSI and FAIR campus in Darmstadt.
By signing the agreement, ESA Director General Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner and the FAIR Management Board, consisting of the Scientific Managing Director Professor Paolo Giubellino, the Administrative Managing Director Ursula Weyrich, and the Technical Managing Director Jörg Blaurock, sealed an international partnership that will open up far-reaching opportunities for new scientific findings. For example radiation is a showstopper for human missions to the Moon and Mars as well as for scientific missions to the depths of space. Also present was ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, one of the initiators of the cooperation.
Unique research opportunities
“The partnership between FAIR and ESA will open up unique opportunities for carrying out outstanding research in the area of cosmic radiation and its effects,” said Professor Paolo Giubellino. “FAIR will be an institute that is unique in the world. It will enable researchers to reproduce the diversity of the universe in the laboratory, so to speak, in order to investigate fundamental questions such as how the chemical elements came into existence in the cosmos, gain knowledge about the effect of radiation on cells and solid objects, and forge ahead with practical applications in areas such as biophysics and materials research. We are eagerly looking forward to closer cooperation with the ESA.”
Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner also emphasized the significance of the new partnership between the two international institutes: „GSI is the only facility in Europe capable of simulating high-energy heavy nuclei occurring in cosmic radiation. With FAIR, experiments with an even wider range of particle energies and intensities will soon be possible. This reproduction of the cosmic radiation environment can support us in many areas, from materials research for satellite missions to radiobiology, which deals with the effects of cosmic radiation on the human organism, and is an important preparation for long-term astronautical missions to the moon and beyond.“
When they move beyond the Earth’s protective atmosphere and its magnetic field, astronauts, satellites, and space probes are exposed to cosmic rays. An essential component of cosmic rays are fast particles that are ejected into space during stellar explosions or emitted by the sun and by distant galaxies. What effects would radiation have on human beings and spacecraft during a long space journey, for example to Mars? What would happen to the sensitive electronics on board? What materials, in which thicknesses, would be suitable protective shields to mitigate these effects? Can radiation-resistant materials and electronic components be developed in a targeted manner? These are some of the basic questions that are crucial to the implementation of such space missions. The aim is to provide the best possible conditions for human beings and materials in space and to minimize the risks to health.
In the future, researchers at the FAIR accelerator facility will be able to generate the kinds of radiation that exist in space and make them available to scientists for their experiments. For example, researchers will be able to investigate how cells and human DNA are altered or damaged by exposure to cosmic radiation and how well microchips stand up to the extreme conditions in space.
The central points of the cooperation agreement between ESA and FAIR include the research fields of radiation biology, electronic components, materials research, shielding materials, and instrument calibration. The research will be conducted at the future FAIR facility as well as the existing accelerator facilities at GSI, which are currently being improved through major upgrading measures and prepared for their future use as preaccelerators for FAIR. The two partners have also agreed to cooperate on technology and software developments and on additional joint activities in areas such as innovation management.
Particle accelerator will enable broad range of radiation research
The new partnership is building on a very successful and reliable foundation of cooperation that has been formed between ESA and GSI over many years in several research projects. For example, the IBER (Investigations into Biological Effects of Radiation) research project has been running since 2008 and is currently entering a new round with the allocation of beam time. The project enables research groups to investigate the biological effects of space radiation at the existing accelerator facilities of GSI.
The GSI accelerator facility is the only one in Europe that can generate all of the ion beams that occur in our solar system, which range from the lightest one, hydrogen, to the heaviest, uranium. The research opportunities will be expanded even further by the future FAIR accelerator center. Thanks to its centerpiece, the ring accelerator SIS100 with a circumference of 1,100 meters, FAIR will enable researchers to conduct experiments with an even wider spectrum of particle energies and intensities, and to simulate the composition of cosmic radiation with a precision that no other accelerator facility will be able to match.
The fundamental research issues are being investigated against a background of complex relationships. There are many different kinds of cosmic rays, and they can have very different effects on spacecraft and their occupants, depending on the kinds of particles, the particles’ energies, and the duration of the exposure. In addition, cosmic rays’ interactions with matter, such as their impact on a protective shield, produce secondary cosmic rays that have very different effects. These secondary rays can do even more damage to biological tissue and sensitive electronics than the original primary cosmic radiation.
Optimized instruments, advantages for mission planning
The objective of the new partnership is to precisely identify these complex relationships and investigate them in even greater depth. For example, new findings could help scientists adapt sensitive instruments specifically for utilization in space. Such research projects are also of interest to the ESA´s European Space Operations Centre ESOC in Darmstadt. This is where satellite missions are controlled and their trajectories are calculated. Detailed knowledge of the radiation sources and effects is helpful for mission planning. It can help researchers select flight variants that will minimize the total radiation load. Both FAIR and ESOC very much look forward to the opportunities of enhanced collaboration between these two Darmstadt-based institutions, which contribute to strengthen Darmstadt as an internationally established City of Science.
Benefits for life on earth
The results of the new partnership will provide future-oriented information not only for space travel but also for life on earth. For example, data from the experiments can provide more detailed insights into radiation risks on earth. They can also help to optimize radiation protection measures and improve radiation therapies for treating cancer. (BP/IP)