Can Fungus Protect Astronauts From Cosmic Rays?

Can Fungus Protect Astronauts From Cosmic Rays?

Never thought a mere fungus could help astronauts combat cosmic rays in space right? Well, scientists have figured out a way to use the fungus growing near the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in astronauts’ space shields!

Crux of the Matter

What’s The Discovery?
Scientists from Johns Hopkins and Stanford University have found out about a very thin sample of a fungus Cryptococcus neoformans. It reportedly has the ability to block and absorb 2% cosmic rays that hit it during its experimentation tenure in the International Space Station (ISS).

Wait, What Are Cosmic Rays?
Cosmic rays are atomic nuclei & high-energy protons that move through space at almost the speed of light (3×10^8 ms-1).

They can originate from the sun, outside of the solar system, and from distant galaxies. These rays are harmful to astronauts as they end up having excessive space radiation exposure which can lead to degenerated tissues and damaged DNA cells in the human body, causing the deadly disease cancer.

So Where Was The Fungus Found?
The radiation-absorbing fungus grows near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Kiev, Ukraine (formerly the Soviet Union). Made up of 4 nuclear reactors, it exploded causing the worst nuclear disaster the world had seen.

The disaster occurred during a regular routine maintenance check on April 26,1986, as per U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).

Within the span of the next couple of years, 220,000+ residents were advised to move out of the contaminated areas. This was after there were signs of acute radiation sickness like seizures, coma, and skin damage caused mainly due to Iodine-131, which localises in our thyroid gland.

What Help Can 2mm Give To Astronauts?
Scientists suggest that even though a thin 2mm of the fungus wouldn’t suffice, a thick layer of 21 cm would be helpful in protecting the current astronauts in space and future explorations.

What Would Be The Process?
There are plans of weaving this fungus material into the spacesuit fabric. A major advantage would be that even if the fungus shields are damaged, they would be able to grow back.

According to study co-author Nils Averesch, “It self-replicates and self-heals, so even if there’s a solar flare that damages the radiation shield significantly, it will be able to grow back in a few days.” These flares occur when there is a sudden flash of increased brightness on the Sun.

Material Found For Future Mars Inhabitation?
Earlier space shields were made of the abundantly available plastic, Polyethylene which was good at dispersing off radiation, compared to its counterparts.

With discoveries like this naturally self-repairing fungus, it would be more convenient to make long-lasting and lighter weight shields to protect future colonies on Mars from cosmic rays and let them live healthily.

  • Pier Antonio Micheli was a noted Italian botanist. He discovered the spores of mushrooms, was a leading authority on cryptogams, and coined several important genera of microfungi including Aspergillus and Botrytis. His Nova plantarum genera was a major step in the knowledge of fungi.
  • The Martian is a 2011 science fiction novel written by Andy Weir. The story follows an American astronaut, Mark Watney, as he becomes stranded alone on Mars in 2035 and must improvise in order to survive. The novel was later adopted into a film starring Matt Damon
  • A solar flare is a sudden flash of increased brightness on the Sun, usually observed near its surface and in close proximity to a sunspot group. X-rays and UV radiation emitted by solar flares can affect Earth’s ionosphere and disrupt long-range radio communications.