A real dummy packed with bone and blood cells will endure an intense radiation shower that simulates a solar flare all in the name of space exploration.
The plan involves using a high-energy proton beam to strike a life-size replica of a human torso embedded with hundreds of radiation sensors. Future astronauts headed for the moon or Mars won't have the protection of Earth's magnetic field against solar radiation storms, and so scientists want to understand how much the human body can endure.
The "Phantom torso" dummy consists of natural bone, simulated skin and organs, and real human blood cells.
"We put blood cells in small tubes in the stomach and in some places in the bone marrow," said Francis Cucinotta, chief scientist for NASA's Radiation Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "One of the questions we have is whether the less shielded parts of the bone marrow will be [much harder hit]."
The amount of radiation that reaches the bone marrow could raise risks of leukemia and other cancers. Researchers can also watch the real blood cells in the dummy so see how much the radiation damages DNA, and whether the cells end up self-destructing or turning cancerous.
Astronauts have typically endured "chronic exposure" to low-level radiation on past and current missions, when the body has time to repair or replace damaged cells. But acute exposure to intense radiation over a period of minutes or hours such as during a solar flare event represents a more dangerous dose.
"The biological effects are very sensitive to the dose rate," Cucinotta explained. "A dose of radiation delivered over a short amount of time is two to three times more damaging than the same dose over a few days."
Apollo astronauts had a near-miss between the Apollo 16 and 17 missions to the moon, when an erupting sunspot unleashed a record-setting barrage of solar radiation in 1972. Researchers plan to recreate that event's effects at NASA's Space Radiation Lab at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, by using a high-energy beam of protons on the European Space Agency's Phantom Torso, named Matroshka.
Matroshka also has a NASA counterpart named Fred. Both dummies have flown in experiments aboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station to show how chronic exposure to background radiation affects the human body.
Whether chronic or acute exposure, the dummies can take multiple blasts of space radiation. A quick transfusion of new red blood cells, and then they're off on their next space adventure.