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One potential issue that will be faced with long, manned, space exploration will be exposure to fluctuating radiation levels.

The current method of safety seems to be launching at times when radiation is low, avoiding solar flares, or hiding between the water tanks when it peaks unexpectedly.

This isn't really a sustainable, nor highly safe method of protecting from radiation.

What technologies or research is underway that will provide a higher level of safety to humans inside the craft on long exploration voyages?

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking specifically about shielding for humans, or more generally about shielding for electronics and any other sensitive hardware? $\endgroup$ – user29 Jul 18 '13 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Hopefully my edits to this question made it less broad, if there is something i'm overlooking that could improve this question, please dont hesitate to let me know! $\endgroup$ – RhysW Jul 18 '13 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ The answers so far are pretty inaccurate, as I've noted in comments. There is some more accurate information here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_threat_from_cosmic_rays $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Jun 29 '16 at 23:05
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There are two novel approaches that I am aware of:

  • The first is to have a safe room. This is basically at the core of the ship and is probably surrounded by shielding or water. The crew gets notified of a solar event and has some time to get into the room. The downside is they don't know how long they will have to be in the room. There are some statistics on how long events usually last though. This doesn't particularly help with the constant background radiation.

  • The second is to magnetize the ship so that it repels the charged particles. "A powerful electromagnet using super conductors would encircle the crew quarters with a donut shaped magnetic field of up to 20 Teslas." Pat Rawlings made a piece of art to depict this:

Magnetically shielded spacecraft could deflect cosmic rays, thereby preventing cell damage and cancer-causing damage to the occupant’s DNA. A powerful electromagnet using super conductors would encircle the crew quarters with a donut shaped magnetic field of up to 20 Teslas. SAIC engineers have developed Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage technology to provide protection against short-term electrical power loss. Digital artwork by Pat Rawlings/SAIC, 2006

It seems like a combination of these two (and other?) approaches would make sense.

Of course if you are on a planet or a moon for example, burying yourself in regolith is the preferred approach...

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    $\begingroup$ This is pretty inaccurate. Material shielding against high-energy cosmic rays produces secondary radiation that is worse than what you started with, for any amount of shielding that would be reasonable for spaceflight in the foreseeable future. The physics in the description of magnetic shielding is also not really right. Magnetic fields don't repel charged particles. Charged particles spiral around the magnetic field lines. For shielding, you need a combination of electric and magnetic fields. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Jun 29 '16 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ Alpha and beta radiation (not gamma) is certainly deflected by a magnetic field. A strong enough magnetic field (like the Earth's) will trap charged particles. The one depicted isn't that strong and will simply deflect them. $\endgroup$ – Erik Jun 30 '16 at 11:18
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Bigelow in its inflatable designs uses a water balloon as part of the meteor protection. But it also adds some shielding. I have not seen anything that suggests it is sufficient for much protection. But that seems like an extensible (to a point) approach. (Obviously mass of water is a pain, but then again, water is simple and low cost short of launch cost).

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There is also the use of Hydrogenated Polyethylene (HPE) which is a lot like a saran wrap layered many tines to create 'bricks' of shielding. Still other concepts involve using water-filled pillows or tubes in the walls to absorb radiation. In one variant of this idea, the 'water' is actually the water from the waste management system, which has a high organics content (!) and so absorbs more particles. Very likely a spacecraft will need a combination of all the above.

Crewmembers can reduce their absorbed dose by wearing Demron fabric, which is used by nuclear workers. . .

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  • $\begingroup$ Material shielding used as protection against high-energy cosmic rays will produce secondary radiation, which is typically more harmful than not having the shielding at all. To have material shielding against this stuff that is better than nothing at all, you need extremely thick shielding -- much thicker than is foreseeable in any spacecraft likely to fly in our lifetimes. We're talking many meters thick. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Jun 29 '16 at 22:59

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