One of the challenges of space exploration is to find a way to protect astronauts from cosmic rays, elementary particles such as protons and atomic nuclei that travel through space at speeds close to the speed of light.
When interacting with the human organism, cosmic rays can cause DNA damage, leading to mutations that can give rise to various types of cancer. There is also a risk for electronic equipment, corrupting information in the memory of computers and instruments.
Research by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities, both in the U.S., may have found a solution: a type of fungus that grows near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, called Cryptococcus neoformans, and which has the ability to absorb cosmic rays, preventing them from reaching the astronauts.
Integrated with the fabric of the suits, the fungus could help protect astronauts during spacewalks: Photo: NASA
An experiment carried out on board the International Space Station (ISS) showed that a thin layer of this fungus, only 2 mm thick, was able to absorb 2% of the cosmic rays that reach it. According to scientists, a 21 cm thick layer would be enough to completely protect travelers on the way to Mars, for example. A possibility raised by them is the mixture of the fungus in the space suits fabric, making them safer for astronauts during spacewalks.
“What makes this fungus so interesting that you only need a few grams to get started,” said Nils Averesch, a Stanford researcher and co-author of the study. “It self-replicates and repairs itself, so even if a solar storm significantly damages the shield, it will grow back in a few days.”
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