Texas A&M-Led Team Develops First Ground-Based Model Simulating Effects of Space Radiation

The Texas A&M Computational Physics Group’s Jeff Chancellor ’17 prepares for his inaugural public presentation at Texas A&M Research Computing Week on new research with the potential to revolutionize materials research and biological experiments related to space travel.

By Shana K. Hutchins, Texas A&M University College of Science

Two years ago, Jeff Chancellor put a promising 15-year private-sector career in space radiation research and risk assessment on hold to concentrate full-time on finishing his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University. Although he may have taken a professional leave of absence, Chancellor never left behind the job of protecting NASA’s astronaut corps — an understandably personal mission, considering that his wife, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, is a member.

“I was a program manager working with NASA involved in radiation risk assessment and management, and I decided to give the Ph.D. one more try,” said Chancellor, Texas A&M Class of ’17. “A friend of mine was a professor at Texas A&M, and I had started working with him for a year or two before enrolling full-time in 2015. When he left, I asked Dr. [Donald] Naugle for recommendations, and he directed me toward Helmut Katzgraber and his computational physics group.”

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind — or more accurately, the safety of future astronauts following in the late Neil Armstrong’s galactic footsteps, thanks to new research by Katzgraber’s group published last week on arXiv.org that has the potential to revolutionize materials research and biological experiments related to space travel.

Artist’s rendering of the effects of the moderator block geometry: the one gigaelectronvolt (1 GeV) 56 iron primary beam enters the moderator block from the right and is subjected to specific spallation and energy loss processes that result in a radiation field with the desired distribution of ions and energies emerging from the right. (Credit: Nicole Stott and Eric Gignac.)

Using well-established physics principles, Monte Carlo simulations and state-of-the-art supercomputing and data-analysis technology at both Texas A&M High Performance Research Computing and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), the Texas A&M-led team produced a model that simulates the highly complex space radiation environment and delivers results that stack up data point for data point in comparison to publicly available radiation-dose-related information obtained from three past NASA missions: Shuttle MIR, the International Space Station and Orion’s recent Exploration Flight Test Mission (EFT-1).
“What we have done is used well-versed, fundamental nuclear science principles combined with high-performance computing and shown that you can selectively degrade a heavy ion beam so that the emerging field actually mimics the space radiation environment found inside of these space vehicles — something that has never been done before and has not been utilized yet,” Chancellor told an audience assembled Jun. 9 in Texas A&M’s Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building for a two-day Research Computing Week symposium. “Our approach is the first time that a true ground-based analog can be applied to mild studies of biological models for human health outcomes but also to evaluate satellite and orbiting hardware to RAD-hard test their capabilities.”

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This story originally appeared on the College of Science website.

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