As the U.S. prepares to launch more people into space, one Israeli company with Tampa ties is working to keep astronauts safe from one of the most dangerous aspects of deep space travel: radiation.
The first test rocket in NASA’s Artemis program for deep space exploration was scrubbed today from Cape Canaveral. But when Artemis I does launch, it will have a mannequin onboard wearing a protective vest developed by StemRad, a technology company founded in Tel Aviv with its U.S. headquarters in downtown Tampa.
The AstroRad vests will track radiation levels throughout the test flight, collecting important data. No astronaut during the last half-century has been exposed to the levels of radiation found in deep space.
Recent astronauts have been partially protected by the planet’s magnetic sphere in low Earth orbit, where most manned space missions have taken place since 1972. Radiation is about 50 times higher here than on Earth, according to NASA.
Outside of this bubble, considered deep space, radiation can be 150 times higher.
The last people to venture into deep space were the Apollo 17 crew members in 1972. The Apollo program was famous for Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon. The astronauts in the program faced higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths likely due to the radiation they experienced in space, according to a 2016 Scientific Reports study by Florida State University.
Despite their exposure to harmful levels of radiation, they never faced a potentially deadly solar event during their trips. Solar particle events and solar flares are sudden eruptions of radiation from the sun.
For the Artemis program, StemRad chief executive Oren Milstein said exposure to solar flares will be inevitable.
“The Apollo mission took a calculated risk because they knew that they would be up there for only a few days at a time. But now NASA is looking to be there for months on end,” Milstein said. “If that’s the case, then it’s not a matter of if but when and how harsh those solar storms are going to be.”
There are two mannequins on the test flight that are modeled after a woman’s body. Women have higher risks of breast cancer from radiation poisoning, Milstein said. The materials the mannequins are made of are meant to mimic human bones, soft tissues and organs. Trackers placed on them will measure the amount of radiation hitting critical organs.
“There was never a woman in deep space, and there will be during Artemis, so it was very important to see the dose of radiation into the female body,” Milstein said.
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One mannequin, named Zohar, will be wearing StemRad’s AstroRad vest on the test flight, while the other, named Helga, will not. Scientists will compare the two when the spacecraft returns to Earth. The experiment is a collaboration between StemRad, NASA, the Israel Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center.
StemRad was founded in Tel Aviv months after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by an earthquake in Japan. The company developed flexible gamma radiation protection for military and first responders.
The company opened its U.S. office in 2017 after participating in a program through the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator in Tampa. The accelerator works to help Israeli technology companies build a presence in Florida. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik led a $6 million fundraising round for StemRad after it opened in Tampa’s technology incubator Embarc Collective.
Unlike the gamma radiation protection vest that uses dense materials like lead, the AstroRad vest uses lighter polymers and will cover more of the body, Milstein said.
The Artemis 1 mission is expected to last 42 days. As solar flares are highly unpredictable, Milstein said the company will also monitor as the spacecraft goes through Earth’s Van Allen belt, where radiation that’s repelled from the planet’s protective magnetic bubble gets trapped.
The idea is that future astronauts would put on the vest before flying through the Van Allen belt on the way to the moon — or Mars — and when they get a warning for an incoming solar flare. They can wear it for hours or days until it passes, Milstein said.
“Should we pass muster, which I believe we will, it’s likely to be a very instrumental tool in the hands of NASA in really achieving their greatest vision of having a perpetual presence in deep space,” he said.