Discover Brookhaven

NASA Space Radiation Laboratory

When she’s not building artificially damaged DNA molecules in her Biology Department laboratory, Betsy Sutherland studies the potentially damaging effects of simulated space radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory — one of the few places in the world that can simulate the harsh cosmic and solar radiation environment found in space.

Built and operated by NASA in cooperation with DOE’s Office of Nuclear Physics and operational since 2003, NSRL employs beams of heavy ions extracted from Brookhaven accelerators to irradiate a variety of biological specimens (including tissues, cells, and DNA), as well as industrial materials being studied for their suitability for space suits and spacecraft shielding.

“The major challenges for research at the NSRL are to uncover the risks of radiation to space travelers and to develop countermeasures that allow the safe, long-term presence of human beings at the space station and beyond,” Sutherland explained.

Each year, during three experimental “runs” lasting approximately eight weeks each, scientists from more than 25 research institutions from throughout the U.S. and abroad work at NSRL to address these challenges, supported mainly by NASA funding. Each summer they are joined by a group of 15 or so international students(graduate to postdoctoral) and young independent investigators for an intensive hands-on research program designed to provide a “pipeline” of future space radiobiology researchers.

“While there is a wealth of data describing the effects of conventional radiation like x-rays, the same is not true for the types of radiation present in space,” explained Peter Guida, medical department liaison scientist for this program at Brookhaven Lab. “It is essential to define the potential risks of exposure to space radiation and, if necessary, develop effective countermeasures to these risks.”  

2008 marks the fifth year of the summer program. “Even though the program is still young, many of our graduates are already making contributions to the field,” noted Guida.