Space Radiation and Human Exposures, A Primer

Radiat Res. 2016 Apr;185(4):349-58. doi: 10.1667/RR14311.1. Epub 2016 Mar 28.


The space radiation environment is a complex field comprised primarily of charged particles spanning energies over many orders of magnitude. The principal sources of these particles are galactic cosmic rays, the Sun and the trapped radiation belts around the earth. Superimposed on a steady influx of cosmic rays and a steady outward flux of low-energy solar wind are short-term ejections of higher energy particles from the Sun and an 11-year variation of solar luminosity that modulates cosmic ray intensity. Human health risks are estimated from models of the radiation environment for various mission scenarios, the shielding of associated vehicles and the human body itself. Transport models are used to propagate the ambient radiation fields through realistic shielding levels and materials to yield radiation field models inside spacecraft. Then, informed by radiobiological experiments and epidemiology studies, estimates are made for various outcome measures associated with impairments of biological processes, losses of function or mortality. Cancer-associated risks have been formulated in a probabilistic model while management of non-cancer risks are based on permissible exposure limits. This article focuses on the various components of the space radiation environment and the human exposures that it creates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Extraterrestrial Environment*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced
  • Radiation Exposure* / adverse effects
  • Radiation Protection
  • Risk Assessment