Wednesday, July 29, 2020

From Chornobyl to Mars: Radiation-absorbing fungus tested as space station shield

July 29, 2020 ( Cladosporium sphaerospermum, a radiation-absorbing fungus first found thriving within the highly radioactive cooling pools of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, has undergone trials onboard the International Space Station (ISS) for use as a radiation-resistant barrier for space exploration. In a recently published paper, researchers hypothesize that this fungus could be used as a biological radiation shield, allowing mankind to establish a permanent presence on the Moon or even Mars. In 1991, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found three types of fungi thriving in the cooling water at the Chornobyl power plant. These fungi survived in the coolant, despite the fact that its radiation level was 500 times higher than in the surrounding environment. Now, the fungi could provide a novel solution to one of the greatest challenges of space exploration: hazardous levels of radiation.
The International Space Station
NASA Archive / Alamy
According to the research paper, astronauts studied a sample of radiation-absorbing fungus onboard the ISS over a time frame of 30 days in an environment intended to replicate the radioactive conditions on Mars. The findings suggested that a layer of the fungus 21 centimeters thick would successfully protect against an annual dose of radiation on Mars, whereas just a 9-centimeter layer would be required when mixed with melanin and Martian soil. Weighing less than the heavy alloys that would normally protect from radiation, the fungal shield could help lower the overall weight of cargo blasted into space for settlements on other planets. What makes the fungus great is that you only need a few grams to start out…It self-replicates and self-heals, so even if there’s a solar flare that damages the radiation shield significantly, it will be able to grow back in a few days,” researcher Nills Averesch said in a comment to the New ScientistThe paper is awaiting peer-review, but the initial results of the trials of the fungus have been promising. The paper concludes with an optimistic affirmation: Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.