New moon radiation measurement may help assess astronaut health risks

A two-month stint on the moon would expose astronauts to roughly the same amount of radiation as they would get living on the International Space Station for five months, according to new measurements from the lunar surface.

Detectors on China’s lunar lander Chang’e-4 measured radiation from galactic cosmic rays at the moon’s surface in 2019, from January 3 to 12 — just after landing on the farside of the moon — and again from January 31 to February 10. An astronaut would be exposed to an average daily dose of 1,369 microsieverts of radiation, researchers report online September 25 in Science Advances.

That’s about 2.6 times as high as the average daily radiation exposure of 523 microsieverts recorded inside the ISS, the scientists say. Being on the moon “for two months would be OK. That is about the same amount of radiation astronauts receive at the ISS [over five months] and wouldn’t be incredibly dangerous,” says coauthor Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber, a physicist at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany.

The new study is perhaps the first to measure cosmic radiation at the moon’s surface, says Jeffery Chancellor, a physicist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “This is [a] pretty cool bit of data.” He cautions that radiation levels on other parts of the space station could be higher, so the authors may have overprojected the exposure difference between the moon’s surface and the ISS.

Galactic cosmic rays, high-energy charged particles that zip through space, come from outside the solar system. Earth’s magnetic field protects humans from these rays, but in space, it’s a whole different story.

Long exposure to such radiation can cause cellular and DNA damage resulting in cancers, cataracts, cardiac problems, neurodegenerative diseases and behavioral impairments, animal studies have shown (SN: 7/15/20). So far, it’s unclear exactly what impact such exposure might have on human health. The effects of spending a large amount of time in space may show many years after someone has been exposed, says Marjan Boerma, a radiation biologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. 

The findings come at a time when United States and other nations are making plans to land humans on moon for the first time in decades (SN: 12/16/19). NASA has announced its plans to land the first U.S. woman and a man on the moon’s surface by 2024.

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