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Space Radiation - Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is radiation?

    Radiation may be defined as energy in transit in the form of high-speed particles and electromagnetic waves. (More info)

      

  • Where does radiation come from in space?

    There are three naturally occurring sources of space radiation: trapped radiation, galactic cosmic radiation (GCR), and solar particle events (SPE).

      

  • How can radiation harm you?

    Radiation can harm you by damaging the DNA in living cells. The amount of damage caused by radiation varies with the dose received. The damage may range from almost no effect (cells repair themselves and continue to function normally) to death (resulting from vascular damage to vital blood providing systems for nervous tissue, such as the brain). For doses received between these two extremes, damaged cells can reproduce to form cancerous ones, tissues can fail to function, and the immune system can be compromised. (More info)

      

  • How is radiation measured?

    Two types of measurements are used to describe the effects of radiation - the absorbed dose and the dose equivalent. The absorbed dose relates to the amount of energy actually absorbed by some material. It is used for any type of radiation and for any type of material. The dose equivalent relates the absorbed dose in human tissue to the effective biological damage of the radiation. Not all radiation has the same biological effect, even for the same amount of absorbed dose. The differences in biological effects caused by different types of radiation are described as radiobiological effectiveness (RBE). Mathematically, RBE is the ratio of the absorbed dose of low-LET radiation (X-Rays, g rays) necessary to cause the same level of the same biological effect as that of high-LET radiation (neutrons, a particles). LET is an acronym for Linear Energy Transfer, and describes the average energy released per unit length of track. The RBE for a particular type of radiation is used to determine the Q factor. The dose equivalent is calculated by multiplying the Q factor by the absorbed dose.

       Just as is the case for measuring mass, length, and temperature, one set of units is used to measure radiation doses in the United States Federal Regulations and another set is used in other countries. The following table summarizes these units.

      

    Measurement USA Units International
    Standard Units (SI)
    Absorbed Dose rad - defined as 100 ergs per gram of material Gray (Gy); defined as one joule of energy deposited in one kg of material

      1 Gy = 100 rad

    Dose Equivalent rem - determined by multiplying the absorbed dose (rad) by a quality factor (Q) that is unique to the type of incident radiation Sievert (Sv); determined by multiplying the absorbed dose (Gy) by a quality factor (Q) that is unique to the type of incident radiation

      1 Sv = 100 rem

      

      

  • What are the dose limits for astronauts and for terrestrial workers?


    Organ Specific Exposure Limits for Astronauts
    Exposure Interval Blood Forming Organs Eye Skin
    30 Days 25 rem 100 rem 150 rem
    Annual 50 rem 200 rem 300 rem
    Career 150 - 400 rem [200 + 7.5(age - 30) for men]
    100 - 300 rem [200 + 7.5(age - 38) for women]
    400 rem 600 rem

       The dose limit for terrestrial radiation workers is 5 rem per year.

      

  • How does the radiation that astronauts receive in space compare to radiation exposure that one might receive otherwise?


    Type of Exposure Dose Equivalent
    Shuttle (Average Skin Dose) ~433 mrem*/mission
    Apollo 14 (Highest Skin Dose) 1,400 mrem*/mission
    Skylab 4 (Highest Skin Dose) 17,800 mrem*/mission
    Shuttle (Highest Skin Dose) 7,864 mrem*/mission
    Airline Flight Crew 200 mrem*/year
    Gas Cooking Range 0.02 mrem*/year
    Dental Prosthesis 0.02 mrem*/year
    CT Scan (Chest) 700 mrem*/event
    Barium Enema 400 mrem*/event
    Houston Background 100 mrem*/year
    * 1 mrem = .001 rem

      

  • What is radiobiological effectiveness (RBE)?

    RBE is the ratio of the absorbed dose of low-LET radiation (X-Rays, g rays) to cause the same level of the same biological effect as that of high-LET radiation (neutrons, a particles). LET stands for Linear Energy Transfer, and describes the average energy released per unit length of track. The RBE is used to determine the Q factor used in calculating equivalent dose from absorbed dose.

      

  • What are stochastic and non-stochastic effects?

    Stochastic effects are random effects for which the probability of occurrence in a population is a function of dose. Cancer, leukemia, and genetic changes are examples of stochastic effects. Non-stochastic, or deterministic effects, are threshold effects the severity of which increases with dose (at a certain threshold, every individual will see these effects). Radiation "sickness" or nausea, skin reddening, sterility, and cataract formation are examples of deterministic effects.

      

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Curator: Terrie Bevill
NASA Responsible Official: Kerry Lee
Last Updated: 3/5/2014
Last Reviewed: 3/5/2014