NASA Is Sending Artificial Female Bodies to the Moon to Study Radiation Risks

NASA Is Sending Artificial Female Bodies to the Moon to Study Radiation Risks
An illustration showing the two test dummies aboard the Orion capsule to the Moon. (Illustration: NASA/Lockheed Martin/DLR)

Helga and Zohar are headed for a trip around the Moon on an important mission, measuring radiation risks for female astronauts for the first time.

The inanimate pair are manikins modelled after the body of an adult woman. For the Artemis 1 mission, in which an uncrewed Orion capsule will travel to the Moon and back, one of the manikins will be outfitted with a newly developed radiation protection vest. Helga and Zohar, as they’re called, won’t be alone, as they’ll be joined by a third manikin that will collect data about flight accelerations and vibrations. Artemis 1 is scheduled to blast off later this year.

The Artemis program aims to return humans to the Moon for the first time in over 50 years, but this time the space agency has vowed to land the first woman on the dusty lunar surface. Women appear to be at a greater risk of suffering from the harmful effects of space radiation, so they have different radiation boundary levels than their male colleagues. Studies of radiation exposure for men and women indicate a higher chance of women developing cancer, while other research has found that space radiation is likely to affect female reproductive health.

The two torsos prior to transport.  (Photo: DLR)The two torsos prior to transport. (Photo: DLR)

That said, there has been little to no research on the different radiation measurements for both sexes. But now, as NASA prepares to send female astronauts to the Moon no earlier than 2025, the space agency is looking for ways to mitigate the effects of space radiation for its crews on the long duration trip.

The Helga and Zohar manikins are part of the MARE experiment, designed by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). The experiment will use two identical representations of the female body to investigate radiation exposure throughout the flight of the Artemis 1 mission, which may last up to six weeks. Artemis 1 will set the stage for Artemis 2, in which an Orion capsule carrying real humans will fly to the Moon and back (without landing), possibly as early as 2024.

“We are looking to find out exactly how radiation levels affect female astronauts over the course of an entire flight to the Moon, and which protective measures might help to counteract this,” Thomas Berger, head of the biophysics group in the Radiation Biology Department at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine, said in a statement.

Here’s how it will work. The manikins are made from materials that mimic the bones, soft tissues, and organs of an adult woman, all of which will be tracked by more than 10,000 passive sensors and 34 active radiation detectors, according to DLR. One of the manikins, Helga, will fly to the Moon unprotected while the other one, Zohar, will wear a radiation protection vest called the AstroRad (which was developed by American aerospace company Lockheed Martin and Israeli startup StemRad).

As they travel aboard the Orion spacecraft to the Moon, Helga and Zohar will be affected by the harsh environment of space. The manikins, having travelled beyond the protective shielding of Earth’s magnetosphere, will be exposed to various types of space radiation, like charged particles produced by the Sun or energy particles trapped within Earth’s atmosphere. Space radiation is known to alter molecules of DNA, which is obviously not good for human health. Upon their arrival back at Earth, data collected from the two manikins will help researchers to better understand the level of protection provided by the newly developed AstroRad vest.

The manikins have already arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where they will be strapped into the Orion spacecraft about four weeks before scheduled launch. NASA continues to prepare its Space Launch System (SLS) for the mission, which is expected to blast off later this summer.