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NASA Space Radiobiology Research Takes Off
at New Brookhaven Facility


Since the lowest energy ions that the AGS can produce have more energy than most space particles, the AGS is not the most ideal accelerator for radiobiology studies. To simulate the less-than-1-GeV energy spectrum of galactic cosmic rays and solar radiation better, NASA and Brookhaven have worked together since 1997, building a facility dedicated to space-radiation research at the Booster, which is the lower energy pre-accelerator serving the AGS.

“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.”

- Betsy Sutherland

For all experiments using Brookhaven’s accelerator-collider complex, ions originate in the Tandem Van de Graaff accelerator, while protons start at the linear accelerator. Beams are then transported to the Booster, where they are pushed to higher energies. Periodically, these beams are injected into the AGS for further acceleration, which, in turn, sends them on to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), the world’s newest and largest accelerator for nuclear physics and polarized proton research (see related story).

While RHIC is running, heavy ions or protons — either the same or a different beam than what is being collided within RHIC — can be accelerated or decelerated within the Booster, which then delivers the beam to the NSRL target room. There, Brookhaven researchers and other NASA-sponsored scientists irradiate a variety of biological specimens, tissues, and cells, as well as DNA in solution. In addition, other experimenters use industrial materials as samples, studying their suitability for space suits and spacecraft shielding.

In increasing knowledge of cosmic radiation effect on living beings and inert materials, NSRL studies may expand the understanding of the link between ionizing radiation and aging or neuro-degeneration, as well as cancer. In aiming to limit the damage to healthy tissue by ionization, NSRL research may also lead to improvements in cancer radiation treatments.



To use beams of heavy ions provided by the Booster accelerator at Brookhaven to study the effects of simulated space radiation on biological and physical systems, with the goal of developing methods and materials to reduce the risk to human beings on prolonged space missions of the effects of ionizing radiation




National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)


$34 million over 4 years


$5 million per year


  • beams of heavy ions with masses and energies similar to the cosmic rays encountered in space:
  • 1-billion electron volt (GeV)/nucleon iron-56
  • 0.3-GeV/nucleon gold-97
  • 0.6-GeV/nucleon silicon-28
  • heavy ions originate in the Tandem Van de Graaff accelerator and are injected into the Booster accelerator
  • a resonant extraction system, which allows the removal from the Booster of broad and long pulses of heavy ions
  • a new 100-meter transport tunnel and beam line to deliver the beam to a 400- square-foot shielded target hall for NASA -funded space-effects experiments
  • a target hall connected to 4,560-squarefoot support building, which includes five laboratories for biological, medical and materials experiments; specimen rooms; dosimetry room; and control rooms
  • long-term user support provided by Brookhaven’s Biology and Medical Department


Pictured inside the NSRL target room is Adam Rusek, who is checking the cabling of one of the four ion chambers used for beam imaging (black-framed objects) or dosimetry (blue-framed objects). Cutting off the beam from an experiment once the predetermined dose is reached, the computer controlled dosimetry chambers ensure a dose accuracy within 0.5 percent.

  • NASA: headquarters, Johnson Space Center, NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training, National Space Biomedical Research Institute
  • National laboratories and institutes: Brookhaven National Laboratory; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Medical Research Council, England;National Institute of Health, Italy
  • Universities: Case Western Reserve University; Colorado State University; Columbia University; Loma Linda University; New York University; Prairie View A&M University; The Johns Hopkins University; Texas A&M University; University Federico II, Italy; University of California, San Francisco; University of Maryland, Baltimore; University of Pennsylvania; University of Rome, Italy; University of Texas; University of Tokyo, Japan


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