Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) – The 800 Pound Gorilla

The most recent issue of Science News (18 December 2010) has the following notes from 17 December 1960:

HEAVY SHIELD UNNECESSARY — Heavy shielding as protection for an astronaut against space radiations may not be necessary, at least for trips of less than 50 hours and at distances not greater than 618 miles from earth…. [B]iological specimens were encased in different types of metal to test their effectiveness as shielding materials. Some specimens were shielded only by the thin aluminum covering of the specimen capsule and the comparatively thin shell of the recovery capsule. Radiation dosimeters showed that aluminum provided better shielding properties than lead and that any heavy metal such as gold or lead becomes a hazard during a solar flare as high energy protons interact with these heavy metals to create damaging X-rays.

However, if you want to travel to the Moon or journey anywhere within the Solar System, Galactic Cosmic Radiation will require that the human crew is protected. Let’s take a look at the problem and the research required to test and implement solutions.


The GCR problem arises from interstellar atomic nuclei traveling near the speed of light striking the structure of a spacecraft. The resulting shower of secondary particles cause radiation damage. The Earth is protected by the Van Allen belts and a deep atmosphere. Brief journeys such as an Apollo mission does not expose the astronaut to dangerous dosages. However, astronauts on such a journey are at risk from Solar flares (Solar Particle Events – SPE). SPEs can be mitigated with layers of hydrogen rich materials such as polyethylene or water. GCRs, however, require spaceships on long journeys of more than 100 days, or habitats on the Lunar or Martian surface, to be surrounded by tens of meters of water for passive protection, or magnetic shields for active protection. Either solution is extremely heavy and makes space flight prohibitive in terms of propellant requirements.

The following sections discuss each aspect and provide references for further reading about the problem

The Source of GCR

Galactic Cosmic Rays come from outside our Solar System, but from within our galaxy, the Milky Way. They are comprised of atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their electrons. These nuclei can be any element. Common elements are carbon, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, and iron with similar abundances as the Solar System. Lithium, Berylium and Boron are overabundant relative to the Solar System ratios.

The Shielding Problem

Early on, it was suggested that cosmic rays could penetrate the Apollo spacecraft. From “Biomedical Results of Apollo” section IV, chapter 2, Apollo Light Flash Investigations we have the following account:

Crewmembers of the Apollo 11 mission were the first astronauts to describe an unusual visual phenomenon associated with space flight. During transearth coast, both the Commander and the Lunar Module Pilot reported seeing faint spots or flashes of light when the cabin was dark and they had become dark-adapted. It is believed that these light flashes result from high energy, heavy cosmic rays penetrating the Command Module structure and the crew members’ eyes. These particles are thought to be capable of producing, visual sensations through interaction with the retina, either by direct deposition of ionization energy in the retina or through creation of visible light via the Cerenkov effect.

When Galactic Cosmic Rays collide with another atom, such as those contained in the Aluminum, Stainless Steel or Titanium structures of a spacecraft, they can create a shower of secondary particles, These secondary particles cause radiation damage in living organisms (humans).

The problem is creating sufficiently powerful barriers to these extremely energetic nuclei.

Researching Solutions

    • Passive Shielding – At least for solar flares (SPE), some solutions are easier than the GCR problem.


    • Active Shielding


    • Fast Passage to avoid exposure (integrating vapor core reactors into a VASIMR propelled craft).


    • A proposal for studying radiation and other factors associated with long term human occupation of space.




    • From the Summary in Radiation Shielding Simulation For Interplanetary Manned Missions

      Inflatable Habitat + shielding

      • Hadronic interactions are significant, systematics is under control
      • The shielding capabilities of an inflatable habitat are comparable to a conventional rigid structure – Water / polyethylene are equivalent
      • Shielding thickness optimisation involves complex physics effects
      • An additional shielding layer, enclosing a special shelter zone, is effective against SPE

      Moon Habitat

      • Regolith shielding limits GCR and SPE exposure effectively
      • Its shielding capabilities against GCR can be better than conventional Al structures as in the ISS


See also the recent article in New Scientist about radiation hazards. A tip of the hat to ParabolicArc.


National Space Society

National Space Society

1 thought on “Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) – The 800 Pound Gorilla”

  1. What is the most effective barrier for GCR. What is the long term prognosis for someone exposed to it over a period of time. Is there any safe amount of time to be exposed.


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