Can manned spacecraft survive the Earth’s radiation belts?

We find out if our planet’s radiation belts are as deadly as they sound

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Manned missions such as the Space Shuttle avoided the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Image Credit: NASA

Manned missions such as the Space Shuttle avoided the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Image Credit: NASA

Asked by Sam Ridge

Provided the right shielding is put in place, astronauts are able to survive the effects of our planet’s Van Allen Radiation Belts, the doughnut-shaped regions that encircle our Earth, containing high-energy electrons and ions trapped in its magnetic field.

If it can be avoided, many of the manned missions up until now, such as the Space Shuttle, have stayed well below the altitude of the belts. According to radiation measurements taken by NASA’s Explorer 1 spacecraft, which was launched in 1958, safe flight can occur below altitudes of 560 kilometres (350 miles) or so.

During the 1960s, bacteria and blood samples were sent into space and small animals were exposed to radiation by researchers at NASA as well as the Tower Shielding Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to investigate the effects of this radiation.

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