For companies that produce anything from simple devices to complex systems that are used in Earth’s orbit and beyond, it is critical to have an understanding of the radiation in space. The Earth is protected from much of that radiation thanks to its atmosphere and magnetic field. Unfortunately, spacecraft don’t enjoy those same protections once they leave the planet.
3 Types of Radiation in Space
There are three main sources of radiation in space.
- Solar cosmic radiation (SCR) is made up of two types of radiation. The first is low-energy solar wind particles that emanate from the Sun. This particle radiation generally is not considered to be dangerous. The second component of SCR is highly energetic solar particle events (SPEs). This radiation is emitted by disturbed magnetic regions on the Sun’s surface. The Sun has an 11-year cycle, in which four years of minimal SPE activity are followed by seven years of higher activity. SPE ejections from the Sun are directional, but if they strike a spacecraft, they can be very hazardous to its systems and any crew aboard.
- Galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) is high-energy particle radiation that stars emit when they become supernovas. GCR is primarily made up of hydrogen (88%) with helium (10%) and other heavier ions making up the remainder. GCR is isotropic, meaning it arrives at any point in space with equal intensity from all directions. It is, however, affected by the Sun’s cycle. In periods of what are called solar maximum, GCR is reduced by the increased volume of plasma in the solar wind.
- Van Allen Radiation Belts are space radiation belts produced as a result of the Earth’s magnetic field trapping SCR and low-energy GCR near the planet.
Radiation Protection Required in Space Environments
Protection of crews from space radiation is the top priority in any crewed space mission, of course. But because crews rely on technology that behaves and responds properly for their safety, equipment must be shielded from radiation-induced damage and other radiation effects. This requires radiation-hardened electronics for space environments.
Aerospace environmental testing helps manufacturers measure space radiation effects on electronics. This includes exposing components and systems to the variations of space environment radiation that they might encounter during a mission.
Short-Term and Long-Term Space Radiation Effects
Testing for the efffects of solar radiation on satellites looks both at short-term and long-term space radiation effects. In some cases, a brief, high-energy exposure can damage or destroy an electrical component in a satellite or spacecraft. In others, it is long-term exposure to space radiation that ultimately has a negative impact on a component, device or system.
In either case, appropriate testing can help a manufacturer identify areas where changes in design, materials or both are needed. Then the item can be modified and retested to determine if the enhancement was successful in increasing its radiation harness.
The Growing Need for Space Radiation Testing
With the increasing involvement of private companies in space missions, it seems that a new era in space transportation and exploration is underway. Goals like establishing permanent research facilities on the Moon and sending humans to Mars are more achievable now than ever before.
One of the factors making those goals realistic is the availability of accurate and comprehensive space radiation testing. Together, manufacturers and radiation effects testing companies like RTS will make it possible for crews and equipment to survive in even the most challenging of space radiation environments.