In a first, a team of researchers has reproduced space radiation in the lab — a feat that could help make space exploration safer, reliable and extensive.
Researchers led by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, the UK, used novel laser-plasma-based accelerators to mimic the radiation which presents a risk to astronauts and space technology owing to the lack of protection from it in space.
The study, funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), shows for the first time that this type of device can be used for realistic space radiation reproduction and testing on Earth.
Space radiation is a danger to satellite electronics as well as manned space travel. Earth's magnetic core shields us from dangerous particles but space has no such protection.
Testing for a solution would ideally be done in space but this is costly; furthermore, space radiation is difficult to replicate in laboratory conditions with conventional radiation sources which produce radiation with rather unnatural energy distribution.
"By using laser-plasma-accelerators, however, we were able to produce particle flux which more closely resembled conditions in space," said Professor Bernhard Hidding of Strathclyde's Department of Physics.
The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, also involved researchers and R&D capabilities at ESA, Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, the Central Laser Facility – where the radiation tests were carried out – the University of Hamburg, Leibniz Supercomputing Centre and the University of California Los Angeles.
In collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory and the Central Laser Facility, further development of this application is planned at the Strathclyde-based Scottish Centre for the Application of Plasma-Based Accelerators (SCAPA).
"Our research shows laser-plasma-accelerators are viable tools for space radiation testing and are a valuable addition to conventional ground-based testing techniques," Hidding noted.
Further progress is expected in laser-plasma accelerator technology and this will allow the range of accurately reproducible space radiation to be further extended, to, for example, the radiation belts of other planets with magnetic fields, such as Jupiter or Saturn.