Space Mission Searches for Insights into High Radiation, Cancer


When a rocket carrying mannequins equipped with radiation-detecting sensors returns to earth, researchers hope to better understand the effects of high levels of radiation on the body for cancer treatment and other applications. 

The unmanned Artemis I rocket, which was expected to launch this morning but has since been delayed following an engine issue, will embark on a 42-day journey around the moon. On board will be three mannequins outfitted with sensors designed to assess radiation levels experienced by astronauts who travel beyond earth’s magnetic sphere. As the Tampa Bay Times explains, most recent space missions have been considered low orbit. Because of that, earth’s magnetic sphere has provided a level of protection from radiation. Citing data from NASA, the Times said in that low orbit, radiation is about 50 times higher than on the planet’s surface. However, beyond that sphere, radiation is about 150 times higher.

The last U.S. astronauts to travel beyond the sphere were the members of the Apollo 17 crew in 1972. A Florida State University report suggested that the astronauts in that program faced higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths due to their exposure to such high levels of radiation. The Artemis series of flights is part of NASA’s “Moon to Mars” initiative that aims to establish a “sustainable lunar presence” to support longer and deeper space missions.

Two of the mannequins on the Artemis I flight are designed to replicate a female body. Oren Milstein, chief executive officer of Israel-based StemRad, which designed the sensors worn by these mannequins, told the Times that women have higher risks of breast cancer from radiation poisoning. The mannequin design includes materials that replicate human organs. This will provide researchers with new insights about high levels of radiation exposure.

Exploring the Protective Qualities of Fungi

Radiation will also play a key role in an experiment conducted by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. In addition to the mannequins, the Artemis I rocket will also carry samples of various fungi into space. The NRL team will investigate radiation impacts on eukaryotic survival in space. Jennifer Yuzon, a postdoctoral scientist for NRL's Laboratory for Biomaterials and Systems, told News-Medical that the experiment aims to shed light on the protective qualities of fungi, which have natural mechanisms to protect and repair DNA damage caused by radiation.

Following the Artemis I mission, NASA has planned at least two additional flights to the moon. The next flights are expected to be manned, with the first being a “fly-by” and the following flight to ultimately land on the moon.

One of the potential astronaut candidates for one of these flights is an infectious disease researcher, Kate Rubins, who initially began her research on HIV-1. At the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Rubins “analyzed the mechanism of HIV integration, including several studies of HIV-1 Integrase inhibitors and genome-wide analyses of HIV integration patterns into host genomic DNA,” according to her NASA biography. Working with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the CDC, Rubins and her colleagues developed the first model of smallpox infection and also a map of the poxvirus transcriptome.

As an astronaut, Rubins has already conducted two spacewalks. In an interview with CBS on Sunday, she said this mission has the potential to be a flashpoint that will inspire new levels of scientific exploration.

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