HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — If NASA is to ever meet its goal of sending humans into deep space, it first must figure out how to protect its astronauts from prolonged exposure to high levels of radiation.
Cosmic radiation is different from radiation found on Earth. Simply put, cosmic radiation is more damaging and there's more of it.
The Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere protect it from cosmic radiation and lessens its effects in low-Earth orbit. But astronauts traveling to an asteroid and onto Mars wouldn't have that safety net. The solution NASA is working on is to come up with a shield, of sorts. And a team of high school students from Virginia may help NASA find the key to developing that shield.
In April, a group of five students from the Governor's School for Science and Technology won a global competition to design a shield experiment that will fly into space aboard the Orion spacecraft on its maiden voyage later this year. Orion is the capsule that will eventually carry astronauts into deep space.
During the inaugural flight, Orion will fly 3,600 miles above Earth's surface, or more than 15 times farther into space than the International Space Station. That will take it through the Van Allen Belt, a dense radiation field that surrounds the Earth in a protective shell of electrically charged ions, according to NASA.
The students designed a small cube-like structure, which will carry radiation detection devices inside of it.
Once back on Earth, those devices will be examined at Oklahoma State University to measure radiation levels and see if the students' shield worked as they expected it to.
"The big picture of all this is, if our design does what we expect it to do, and if NASA could incorporate all this into their astronaut suits and just protect them from the radiation, it really makes a lot of headway into prolonged space travel," said Sajan Sheth, who will be attending the University of Virginia this fall. "We could've had something to do with that, which is incredible."
NASA officials have stressed that this is very much a real world problem the students were working on, and not a theoretical exercise.
The students spent the past year working on their project with the assistance of retired NASA aerospace engineer Greg Hajos, who served as their mentor and frequently met with them in a small room at a public library to develop their plans. He's mentored students for the past 10 years.
"I put the students to work on real mission assignments, not just academic problems. It helps NASA as the students bring fresh views and solutions to problems," he said.
A team of engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton analyzed the designs that the students came up with and answered questions for them, just as they did for the other four finalist teams from California, Illinois, Kansas and Utah.
Now that the team has won, they're spending the summer acquiring the materials to build the design experiment. They have a budget of $1,000, provided by Lockheed Martin to build two prototypes.
Later this year, the students will travel to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the Orion launch.
"Your passion for discovery and the creative ideas you have brought forward have made us think and have helped us take a fresh look at a very challenging problem on our path to Mars," NASA administrator Charles Bolden told finalists in April.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis