Science

Can cosmic rays make you sick? – Sciences and future

“Are there one or more recognized diseases due to cosmic radiation?” This is David Campoy’s question to the writing of Science and future On our facebook page. She was selected by the editorial team for our weekly “Question of the Week”. Thank you all for your participation and your loyalty.

Cosmic rays are stopped mainly by the atmosphere.

Cosmic rays are constitutive of high-energy particles from the Sun, from where they are emitted during solar flares, or from interstellar space, or even intergalactic. Responsible for around 15% of natural radioactivity, they are composed mainly of protons, these positively charged particles contained in atomic nuclei, but also helium nuclei, or even heavier nuclei (up to 1%). But do not spread panic! The Earth acts as a shield and protects us from this radiation.

When charged particles move towards our planet, their magnetic field mainly deflects them, so only a small amount will make it to Earth. As the protection at the poles is less effective, it is mainly there that the particles will manage to come and tickle our atmosphere. It is these interactions that create polar lights, be they from the south or north: the contact between charged particles and oxygen or nitrogen atoms results in an emission of electromagnetic radiation (of light), then creating splendid colors that seem to dance in heaven (see video below).

Depending on the altitude, the amount of radiation perceived varied. In fact, the particles that manage to pass through the atmosphere are gradually filtered as they descend towards the ground. Thus, the people who may be most affected by this radiation are aircraft personnel, who are at a higher altitude and therefore more likely to receive these waves. But the total dose received is still insufficient to see any effect. The dose received is highest at the International Space Station, which is 400 kilometers from us and where Thomas Pesquet spent six months, but the time spent by astronauts is relatively short. In addition, the ISS continues protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Effects that are difficult to assess on the human body.

But atmospheric protection does not prevent scientists from asking the question of the effects of cosmic rays on living things. A 2018 study wanted to find out what they caused in mice, male and female. Experiments carried out by neuroscientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) aimed to better understand health effects from the perspective of long space travel. The researchers then subjected their mice to “cosmic radiation cocktails,” a combination of particles that simulate space conditions.

Their results surprisingly showed that female mice were insensitive to it, unlike their male counterparts, for whom radiation severely affected their brains. The latter interacted less with their peers, had difficulty recognizing other mice, and yet familiar objects were reluctant to venture into new but well-lit spaces. In contrast, the irradiated females behaved as if they never had been.

After the effects in mice, the researchers are obviously wondering the effects in humans. Because if no illness is known to be caused specifically by radiation, it could have potential effects on the body. According to the particles responsible for the radiation, they could not only have effects on the nervous system, but could also break DNA and promote the development of cancer. However, many effects of radioactivity they are seen in the long term and are therefore difficult to assess, as in the case of the Chernoybl nuclear disaster, where most of the consequences on the human body could not be assessed until decades after the tragedy.

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