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NASA Space Radiobiology Research Takes Off
at New Brookhaven Facility

Because astronauts are spending more and more time in space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working with Brookhaven and others here on Earth to learn about the possible risks to human beings exposed to space radiation. To study the radiobiological effects using proton and ion beams that simulate the cosmic rays found in space, a new $34-million NASA Space Radiation Laboratory was commissioned at Brookhaven this summer. 

--by Karen McNulty Walsh and Marsha Belford

“TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE BEFORE”— the motto of the science-fiction saga Star Trek — could just as easily be the motto of America’s real-life space explorers. Despite the recent Columbia shuttle tragedy, officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have a bold vision for future manned space exploration, which includes the completion of the International Space Station now under construction, and possible future missions to build a Moon outpost, explore near-Earth asteroids, and send astronauts to Mars.

Seen in front of an image of a future NASA mission to Mars are scientists Marcelo Vazquez of Brookhaven’s Medical Department and Betsy Sutherland of the Laboratory’s Biology Department, who now perform their space-effects research at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven.

Such journeys hold exciting prospects for the advancement of science and the expansion of the human experience. But, for these ambitious plans to move forward, scientists first need a better understanding of how human space travelers will be affected by the harsh environment of space — which includes the presence of ionizing radiation — and how best to protect people in space from harm.

Since 1995, Brookhaven Lab’s Betsy Sutherland and Marcelo Vazquez and their colleagues have been partners in this Earth-based quest for more knowledge about the effects of space radiation and their mitigation, using beams of heavy ions at what was the only U.S. accelerator for radiobiology research, Brookhaven’s Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS). This year, however, their research got a boost with the completion of a new, $34-million facility dedicated to NASA-funded space radiation-effects studies at the AGS Booster, now the best accelerator in America for these studies.

Jointly managed during the four-year construction by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the new facility — formerly called the Booster Applications Facility and now known as the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) — features a beam line dedicated to radiobiology research, as well as state-of-the-art specimen-preparation areas.

The NSRL became operational over three weeks this July, when over 75 experimenters from some 20 institutions from the U.S. and three other countries took part in what was the tenth running of heavy-ion beams at Brookhaven solely for radiobiology research. With the NSRL on line, instead of running only once or twice a year, radiobiology and physics experiments will be conducted three to four times per year, for three to four weeks per run.

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