Understanding Cosmic Rays

Where do cosmic rays come from? How do they originate? How can astronauts be protected from cosmic radiation? These questions have been asked for a long time in the scientific community. There are finally a few answers.

Cosmic rays are, ironically, not rays at all. They are actually particles that have been charged and are traveling at extremely high speed. Where do they begin? That part hasn’t been answered yet. The problem is that magnetic fields cause the paths of these particles to bend and twist as they cross space. It makes tracing the particles to their origin very difficult.

But what is the point in spending research money on something like cosmic rays? They don’t have any effect on the majority of us, right? That’s not exactly accurate either, and it may become more important in the coming decades as space exploration expands.

Like other magnetic fields that bend the path of these particles, Earth’s magnetic field provides us with protection from these cosmic rays in general. The second we get outside of that protective bubble, however, the danger becomes real to both people and electronics. While on Earth, humans are dosed with about 2.4 milliSieverts of cosmic radiation per year. This is really nothing—it takes doses of 4 Sieverts or more to be considered potentially lethal. In space, however, a person is subjected to between .4 and .9 Sieverts per year. While short space trips are not a major concern, long-term exploration will require protection from cosmic radiation. Electronic devices also suffer from the effects of cosmic radiation and the results could be errors and malfunctions.

How are scientists studying these rays? They are using the small amount of cosmic rays that do reach the surface of the Earth in order to learn how they are made and the spectrum in which they operate. It is hoped that this information will allow researchers to develop a shield to protect space travelers from this radiation.