Image: An artist’s illustration of a cosmic ray striking the Earth’s atmosphere and creating a shower of secondary particles detectable on the surface. That high energy fundamental particles are barreling through the universe has been known for about a century. Because ultra high energy cosmic rays are so rare and because their extrapolated directions are so imprecise, no progenitor objects have ever been unambiguously implied. 2007 results from the Pierre Auger Observatory, however, indicate that 12 of 15 ultra high energy cosmic rays have sky directions statistically consistent with the positions of nearby active galactic nuclei. Whatever the source, does such space radiation present a show-stopper for manned missions to deep space? Credit: Robert Nemiroff & Jerry Bonnell / Pierre Auger Observatory Team.

Radiation, Alzheimer’s Disease and Fermi


In a sobering start to the New Year, at least for partisans of manned missions to deep space, new work out of the University of Rochester indicates that galactic cosmic radiation may accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The study, led by the university’s Kerry O’Banion, is hardly the first time that the impact of radiation in space has been studied, with previous work aimed at cancer risks as well as cardiovascular and musculoskeletal issues. But O’Banion’s work points to radiation’s effects on biological processes in the brain, reaching striking conclusions:

“Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts,” said O’Banion. “The possibility that radiation exposure in space may give rise to health problems such as cancer has long been recognized. However, this study shows for the first time that exposure to radiation levels equivalent to a mission to Mars could produce cognitive problems and speed up changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Neurological damage from human missions to deep space — and the study goes no further than the relatively close Mars — would obviously affect our planning and create serious payload constraints given the need for what might have to be massive shielding. I’m already seeing this work being referred to (not by these researchers, to be sure) in the context of the Fermi paradox, which is an interesting speculation in itself, the idea being that if space is inherently hostile to human biology, these conditions may have prevented other species from tackling interstellar journeys. But before we get into that, let’s take a closer look at how the study was put together.

Read more: Radiation, Alzheimer’s Disease and Fermi — Centauri Dreams.

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