2nd Curiosity Series Research: Effect of radiation in research well understood but in some areas still severely lacking

“The NL Space Campus Curiosity Series Research Edition is a unique event where a wealth of information can be gained for researchers: where one has a challenge in (space) research, this event shows that the community is willing to help out”, writes a moderator in his findings. On February 10 the second session took place, organised by NL Space Campus together with knowledge partners ESA and LDE universities. Online, and visited well with over 40 participants from the research community, for example from Nijmegen, Leiden, Delft, Rotterdam, Wageningen, Amsterdam, SRON, and even Toronto University. All actively sharing and growing their knowledge in space research, resulting in detailed discussions. The challenge subject of this edition (Radiation) was presented by Alessandra Menicucci, Assistant Professor Space Systems Engineering at TU Delft. We learned a great deal about how there are many areas in the Radiation Research field that are yet to be explored. Read the summary of the findings, discussions, and some new questions in this article. 


‘Radiation and the effect that it has on hardware- and electronic components in (deep) space environments’ was the subject matter. In general, the effect of radiation is well understood, and current models show good predictions. But there are specific topics of which we currently have limited knowledge and where understanding is severely lacking. “In practice the effects of radiation on materials are not very well understood”, says Gawel Kus, TU Delft, after the discussions. Questions arose such as: would our space systems withstand it, if tomorrow we have another Carrington event? And how can we translate, for example, fundamental knowledge about biological effects of radiation on cells to human beings?


Still building our knowledge mostly

The domains of the discussions were focused on radiation in 1) environment research, 2) materials, 3) electronics and 4) biology. We are currently as a society building our knowledge on space radiation environment research as we are a growing with the development of smallsats. We know material is not always withstanding 50 years of service but only a few years, which brings a lot of challenges for long term. Most information we now gather comes from (international) partners. Currently researchers are trying to figure out how radiation areas function around the globe and in the specific radiation belts (where most of the spacecrafts subside in) to make a European model.


For sun sensors, a lot of information is known and looked at, but new developments are happening, such as with the neutrino radiation detection system on Earth. For applications on Earth there is radiation knowledge required to monitor radiation in fusion reactors (e.g. degradation of material and performances requirements). This research is taking place all over the world to monitor radiation.


Research in the biology field is fairly limited and unexplored

On a biological level knowledge about radiation is still very unsure. Levels vary between species and even within species a fixed radiation level can have various outcomes. This unknown factor makes it harder to identify new traits when breeding new plant varieties. From Erasmus MC moderators Tim Heemskerk and Gerarda van de Kamp note: “How can we translate fundamental knowledge about biological effects of radiation on cells to for example human beings? It is difficult to directly use fundamental knowledge and apply it to prevent health effects on people in space. But it is also difficult to simulate all conditions in space altogether (radiation and microgravity) to do controlled biological research.”



“Our knowledge on the impact of radiation on materials, and their performance, is still very limited, for several reasons. The experimental data is very scarce because one: the access to the testing facilities is quite limited, but also two: the data is quite often confidential, especially in the industry”, says Gawel Kus from the TU Delft, a moderator of one of the discussions. “Biomaterials could be an interesting path for space applications, specifically due their potential for self-healing. In this case they could self-regenerate to counteract the detrimental effects of radiation. However, biomaterials and their performance upon exposure to radiation remain unexplored”, says Gawel Kus.

Damage could be prevented but may be unnecessary

For spacecrafts there are models from previous experiences and tests that were done on spacecrafts. What they do is try to model environments and use materials which are proven to work. Through accelerators they can test some materials partly, but this does not give the best results. For example, through the Open Science Innovation Platform (OSCIP) people can make proposals and perform a Ph.D. to further study these subjects. Bottom line of the discussion of Space Radiation Environment Research was: If massive particle events were to happen now there probably would be a lot of ‘damage’, which may cascade into an onset of events. But the knowledge, and backup/redundance systems, could prevent this if we were to spend the right resources and money on protection.


On the other hand, in recent years we’ve seen a surge of small short-term missions (cubesats) which rely on industrial-grade components. Given the short lifetime of the components, and the relatively low budget, the effects of radiation are not being addressed enough. Thus, the interest in research on the effects of radiation on materials has been stagnating.


Making new connections for the future

Discussions were divided into two parts, with four different domains, and everyone got to be in at least twodiscussions. Arno den Toom was moderator for the discussion about Space Radiation Environment Research: “In the last session, a discussion took place on the understanding of radiation with the central themed question if modern society can withstand another strong geomagnetic storm, such as the Carrington Event from 1859. Would our space systems withstand it?” And mentioned was the loss of almost all satellites from SpaceX two weeks ago, due to a geomagnetic storm, a current situation that was earie coincidental with our discussions. But aside from sharing thoughts and knowledge, a lot of networking also happened between the 40 attendees, which is exactly what this event is about: making new connections and spark ideas to bring your (research) solutions to the next level. “The NL Space Campus is a gateway to the future and for that I am grateful”, concludes Arno den Toom.


Stay updated about future sessions

For the next edition we are shaping our ideas for a new challenge. The event will happen in April/May, with the preference of physical attendance. To stay updated about upcoming events you can register for the newsletter and to become a part of the current Curiosity community you can join the linkedin group Space Research Challenges and Solutions Sharing Netherlands.

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