Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Bruce County’s Dr. Andrei Hanu has his eyes fixed on Mars—and beyond
It’s the early hours of a winter morning, but Dr. Andrei Hanu has gently awakened his three-year-old son and fired up his laptop in their Port Elgin townhouse to share a special moment: watching the launch of a SpaceX Falcon rocket from the historic Launch Complex 39 in Florida.
Hanu can feel the young boy’s anticipation build as they watch and listen to mission control count down the minutes... then seconds... to liftoff.
He knows the sensation. Hanu is currently a senior scientist at Bruce Power, but before that he spent four years as an instrument scientist and research astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. The Goddard Center specializes in the development of space and Earth-observing satellites, managing communications with assets like the Hubble Space Telescope, part of its otherworldly work studying the Earth, sun, solar system and universe.
Working at NASA launched Hanu’s own mission: exploring ways for astronauts to manage their exposure to radiation in space. Absorbing too much radiation is a concern for space travel, especially once astronauts get beyond Earth’s lower orbit. Controlling that constant exposure will be essential if we want to undertake long-distance missions to the Moon or Mars.
And the lessons we learn about radiation in space can have benefits for those of us who remain Earth-bound, where radiation is a natural presence as well, though at much lower levels.
That’s why Hanu is running a research project to put a radiation detection device into space, part of the payload on a future SpaceX mission. Hanu’s NEUDOSE project runs out of McMaster University, partly funded by Bruce Power through the Environment@NII program at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.
We spoke with Hanu about this research, about why we need to understand the effects of radiation on long-distance space travel, and about the importance of diversity in science and engineering.
What are you trying to find out?
As we prepare to expand our presence in space to new locations in the solar system such as the Moon and Mars, we will have to overcome the challenges and risks associated with prolonged exposure to space radiation.
The last time we’ve had an astronaut go beyond low-Earth orbit was 1972. To address this knowledge gap, our team at McMaster has developed the NEUtron DOSimetry & Exploration—or NEUDOSE (pronounced “new dose”) satellite mission.
NEUDOSE is a small satellite, also known as a CubeSat, with onboard instruments that aim to measure the radiation dose from neutrons and charged particles. Our goal is to understand how each of these types of radiation may contribute to an increase in cancer risk during a long space mission.
By understanding the risk, we can design shielding that is more effective and figure out how to get the most out of the heavy radiation shielding in a spacecraft.
Why is space radiation different than what we get every day on Earth?
Space radiation is more intense and contains particles of significantly higher energy. Take a mission to Mars, for example:
It takes six to nine months to get there
Then astronauts would wait until Mars and Earth’s orbits are aligned, so they would stay on the planet for about a year
Then add in another six to nine months back
That’s two to three years in space.
How much radiation would they get from that trip, then?
Most radiation we measure in our day-to-day lives on Earth is in millisieverts—like a chest X-ray exposes patients to around 0.1 mSv.
Those two to three years could mean a radiation dose of 2-3 Sieverts—that’s 20-30,000 times higher than a chest X-ray. Or, according to the American College of Radiology, two to three times as high as a person should receive in their entire lives.
And the effects of that dose?
One Sievert increases a person’s likelihood of cancer by 5%, so for a Mars astronaut that’s a massive increase that we’re hoping to prevent.
What has your research uncovered so far?
We have created a prototype of the NEUDOSE satellite, and within the next year or so we will be handing it over to the Canadian Space Agency. They will arrange for the satellite to be transported to the International Space Station and launched into low-Earth orbit.
That’s when the operational phase of NEUDOSE begins and we hope to make our major scientific findings.
Can you talk to us about the device itself?
The NEUDOSE satellite is about the size of a loaf of bread. Inside it is the actual measuring instrument, which behaves like regular human fat tissue would, absorbing space radiation and relaying those measurements to us on Earth.
Why did this work excite you in the first place?
I started the NEUDOSE project in January 2015 and at that time I was working as a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
During my time there, the NASA administration was placing a strong emphasis on developing technologies that could support a human mission to Mars or perhaps to a nearby asteroid. Being that my formal academic training was in medical and health physics, I naturally gravitated towards the radiation exposure challenge during such a long mission.
“I can confidently say that NEUDOSE has broken the mould that defines what it meant to be an aerospace engineer or scientist.”
How has it broken the mould?
What most excites me about working on the NEUDOSE project is the incredibly talented and diverse student body that we have on the project.
Typically, the first students on a project like this are engineers, most of whom are male. But from the beginning, we were adamant that the project includes a science portion too, not just engineering. About a quarter of the NEUDOSE team are women—and they’re leading teams in areas like engineering and onboard computing.
We’re training Canada’s diverse next generation of aerospace workers, and what truly excites me is the likelihood that our team members could be the next woman and man who land on the Moon.
What is the most important thing we don’t talk about when we talk about space travel?
Without a doubt, the fundamental challenge that makes space travel so difficult is the massive energy required to reach Earth’s orbit and to eventually break free of Earth’s gravitational pull. However, this challenge is currently being addressed by the major aerospace giants such as SpaceX, Boeing, and Rocket Lab, amongst other.
From the perspective of human health, though, exposure to space radiation is one of the top 10 challenges that we must contend with if we are travelling beyond low-Earth orbit.
To reduce our exposure to space radiation, we need to consider various shielding materials and how they can be arranged to offer the maximum protection from radiation. However, shielding by the nature of its construction is heavy and spacecraft are designed to be as light as possible to escape Earth’s gravity.
Our project will help develop better radiation instruments that enhance an astronaut’s situational awareness and the type of radiation they are exposed to.
Finally, would you go to space if offered the chance?
My son would be pretty excited about me going up into space. He’s only three, but any time there’s a rocket launch, I wake him up and we watch it together. Astronauts describe the “overview effect”, seeing the Earth from above—and that, I think, would be amazing.