Space Travel Industry Needs More Data on Radiation Risk

BOULDER, Colorado - More data is needed to gauge radiation exposure of high-flying passengers who pay for suborbital and orbital space sprees, experts say.

Space travel operators need the information in order for customers to give their "informed consent" that they are aware of risks associated with rocketing into the space environment. Without such data, the burgeoning public space travel market could be stymied.

People in the nascent field met here for Space Weather Week, held April 25-28 and sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Environment Center, NASA's Heliophysics Division and the National Science Foundation's Division of Atmospheric Science.

Airline operations

Space weather is largely generated by the Sun and can affect the near-Earth environment, above the protective atmosphere. Airline operators already deal with the impacts from coronal mass ejections from the Sun that can send dangerous, high-energy charged particles toward Earth, as well as space weather disturbances that fester in Earth's magnetic field.

Indeed, space weather's influences on communications and radiation hazard to humans onboard aircraft is a problem in assuring safe and efficient flight operations, especially over the poles, said Mike Stills of United Airlines, based in Chicago, Illinois.

Highly accurate and timely space weather forecasts are increasingly important, Stills said. During solar activity, it is United Airlines' policy to restrict flights from certain routes and altitudes to limit radiation exposure of those onboard and to maintain quality communications with the ground.

"Time is of the essence for us," Stills said, noting that there have been outbreaks of strong solar activity that resulted in route changes, and other problems that can impact airline revenue.

"Right now, we're already seeing crowded skies over the North Pole," Stills noted, driven in large measure by Asia becoming an important player in world economy. "At this juncture, we don't see polar usage decreasing. That means we will need as much information as possible."

Clean sheet

The growth of globe-trotting aircraft is being followed by multi-passenger-carrying spaceships.

"In my view, we are now closing the gap between airplanes and spaceplanes," said Bryn Jones of SolarMetrics Limited in the United Kingdom. "It is just one continuous medium."

SolarMetrics provides a service to airlines and corporations enabling them to deal effectively with the impacts of cosmic radiation and space weather on air travelers, aircraft and air traffic systems.

Jones said that in moving from airplanes to spaceplanes, there's much knowledge that can be applied forward. "But in terms of operations ... we've got a bit of a clean sheet" of paper, he added.

While suborbital space treks out of Earth's atmosphere from various spaceports are very short excursions, improved technology will extend that experience - with orbital space travel sure to follow, Jones said.

"Safety is paramount," he said. "It's the guiding star."

Slip stream of money

As many as 4,000 suborbital flights could roar skyward between 2010 and 2020, based on one projection. That means as many as 20,000 people could take short excursions into the space environment.

There is money to be made.

"At $100,000 per ticket, you're talking about a $2 billion business in ticket sales alone," said James Dunstan, a lawyer with Garvey Schubert Barer in Washington, D.C.

Dunstan notes that the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is now developing rules that will apply to space travel operations.

As part of those AST rules, Dunstan explained, operators will be required to fully disclose hazards to prospective passengers. In doing so, a space traveler will give his or her "informed consent" - that they have been provided sufficient information about the dangers of trekking into space, including environmental risks.

That's key, Dunstan said, in the event of a future claim against an operator that a space traveler was exposed to damaging levels of radiation during a particular flight.

Dialogue needs to start

The informed consent process will call for spaceflight operators to gather space weather and space environment data. Moreover, it must be packaged in such a way that's easy to understand for a flying public that is not necessarily technically inclined, nor the "right stuff" material, Dunstan said.

Dunstan said several steps need to be taken:

  • An inexpensive and reliable way to receive information concerning space weather conditions, including "go/no-go" safety instructions just prior to liftoff of space passengers;
  • A full characterization of the nominal space environment for their normative flight profile, including nominal radiation dosages that passengers can expect, given the particular vehicle properties, as well as any predictable variances from those norms;
  • The ability to track actual radiation dosages obtained over a number of flights to verify the theoretical calculation of radiation exposure; and
  • Individual monitoring devices that, to the extent possible, can provide accurate post-flight data as to each passenger's exposure during the flight.

This dialogue needs to start with the space weather community, Dunstan said. "If forecasts, in fact, prove correct, your biggest constituency out there - in terms of human spaceflight - is not going to be the government. It's going to be these launch companies that are out there," he said.

The space travel industry is extremely young and not very well developed, Dunstan explained.

All the industry needs is one case-one situation where the public is made to fear that going into space is far too risky and highly dangerous-then "what could be a good business could be strangled in its crib," Dunstan said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.