- Researchers recently sent a mold growing at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear collapse to the International Space Station.
- Mold appears to feed on radiation, so early research suggests that this may help protect astronauts from dangerous space radioactivity.
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Astronauts take on many dangers in space, but experiencing dangerous radiation is one of the biggest. According to NASA, in a six-month mission at the International Space Station, astronauts are exposed to up to 160 milliseconds of radiation, about 1,600 chest X-rays, and 26 times more than the average U.S. citizen. Mars is even worse; an astronaut on an 18-month journey to the red planet would be exposed to 1,000 milliseverts of radiation or 10,000 chest x-rays.
Protection astronauts usually rely on radiant shields made of plastics or metals such as aluminum and stainless steel. However, they can be severe and vulnerable.
Thus, in 2018. Some high school students from Durham County, North Carolina, suggested an unusual solution to this problem: Make a shield out of mold.
Specifically, they proposed cladosporium sphaerospermum, an organism that apparently feeds on nuclear radiation in the same way that most plants feed on sunlight. Mold thrived in the Chernobyl Exclusive Zone in 1986. At the site of nuclear fusion, which is still one of the most radioactive sites on Earth.
Students, led by Graham Shunko, who is now a prospective sophomore at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, collected samples of mold species from a Minnesota company. With the help of research company Space Tango, they blew them into space in 2018. December.
At the International Space Station, astronauts placed mold samples in Petri dishes, leaving one side of each dish empty. Geiger counters measured the level of radiation under the dishes every 110 seconds for 30 days. The results showed that the radiation level decreased at the height of mold growth: The calculators measured an average decrease in radiation level of 2.4% on the mold-covered sides.
Preliminary findings from that experiment were uploaded to the BioRxiv research archive on July 17, but have not yet been reviewed. However, they suggest that mold could act as a shield against radiation in space.
This is because mold absorbs radiation and converts it into chemical energy in a process called radiosynthesis. This is similar to photosynthesis, a process that most plants use to convert sunlight into energy.
Schunk and other researchers have suggested that if the mold were about 21 inches thick, it could adequately protect humans from Mars radiation levels. Protection would be stronger if they thought mold would encircle the object instead of simply shielding one side, as is done in the study.
The researchers also noted that mold has a significant advantage over other types of radiation shields because it can grow and replenish itself in space. This means that a microscopic amount of C. sphaerospermum may contain everything needed at the start of the launch – so it will not add extra weight to the rocket. It could be a game changer, because NASA estimates that launching something into space costs about $ 10,000 a pound.