Space tourists and crew suffer high radiation risks – regulation is needed to protect them

Space tourists and crew suffer high radiation risks – regulation is needed to protect them
Richard Branson, next to White Knight Spaceship 2. Jared Ortega/Shutterstock

In a decade or two, journeys into space could become as normal as transatlantic flights. In particular, the number of humans travelling into space with the help of commercial companies, such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, will increase significantly.

But such travel comes with huge radiation risks. Sudden changes in space weather, such as solar flares, for example, could have significant health implications for crew and passengers. Now our recent paper, from the University of Surrey, Foot Anstey LLP Space and Satellite Team, has found that current legislation and regulation don’t do enough to protect space tourists and crew.

Changes in space weather could expose space tourists to radiation doses in excess of the recommended maximum 1 millisievert (mSv) yearly uptake for a member of the public and 20mSv yearly for those working with radiation. Research at the University of Surrey shows that during an extreme space weather event, flight participants could receive doses in excess of 100mSv.

Current legislation and regulation focusing on potential radiation exposure for space tourists is limited and largely untested. There is a heavy focus on conventional non-radiation risk and wider safety, with guidance stemming from regulation of normal commercial flights. However, these are significantly different to space tourism enterprises.

Similarly, the law around space flights and their associated risk liability is complex. Space law incorporates a mix of international law (such as international agreements, treaties and conventions), domestic legislation and guidance.

Cancer risk

Exposure to low levels of background natural radiation is part of everyday life. Most people are not aware of this exposure and the potential risks to our health. For example, an 0.08mSv effective dose from a commercial flight from the UK to the US.

However, exposure to elevated levels of ionising radiation, such as those possible during space weather events, can potentially cause damage to DNA. The risk of space travel therefore ranges from a minor increase in health defects to serious health implications such as cancers.

Diagram illustrating the comparison of radiation doses.
Comparison of radiation doses.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

There has been significant risk assessment of radiation exposure on Earth; for example in the nuclear industry. This is unlike the space tourism industry, which is still in its infancy.

Previous research has focused on the potential risk assessment for astronauts from radiation exposure and long duration missions outside low-Earth orbit. But this does not consider risks for those on short trips to space as tourists. Thus, there is still significant work to be done to assess the unique risk for space tourist flights and the supporting guidance and regulation.

Any existing regulation, such as the UK Air Navigation Order and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) space flight regulations, that is applicable to potential space flights focuses on crew, rather than paying passengers.

The space tourism industry is currently not fully aware of the radiation risks, we discovered. It is instead relying on incomplete “informed consent” for non-crew participants. The current regulation for the industry therefore places the risk burden firmly on the space tourist. We argue more legislation and regulation are needed.

Our recommendations

We made a series of recommendations in our report. But they are advisory. They are intended for the industry and regulators to consider as the space tourism sector continues to develop, particularly the FAA and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

We suggest these bodies collaborate with industry, including space tourism companies, spacecraft manufacturers and space research organisations, to understand the technical challenges and risks associated with new spaceflight activities.
Such collaboration would help ensure that regulations are practical, effective and reflective of the latest technological advances.

We also advise considering international standards. As the commercial space industry becomes more global, it will be important for the CAA and FAA to collaborate with international regulatory bodies elsewhere, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (Uncopuos), to develop consistent regulations that apply across multiple jurisdictions.

Safety should be a critical consideration for any new regulations related to spaceflight. The CAA and FAA will need to ensure that new regulations adequately address risks associated with spaceflight. This is particularly exposure to radiation, but also the potential for accidents or system failures.

Finally, we encourage innovation. The commercial space industry is characterised by rapid innovation and technological advancement. Any new regulations must not stifle this innovation. The CAA and FAA will need to develop regulations that strike a balance between promoting safety, encouraging the development of new technologies and approaches, and enabling growth of the industry.

Ultimately, the CAA and the FAA will need to be flexible and adaptive. As the industry continues to evolve, they should review and update regulations to ensure they remain relevant and effective.

The Conversation

Chris Rees does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.