Mutated Chernobyl Animals Can Teach Astronauts

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Most people have heard about Chernobyl and their irradiated animals, but what you might not know is that those mutated animals are helping scientists and astronauts in space. What does Chernobyl have to do with space? More than you might think.

We have found there is a lot of radiation in space. We have high amounts of radiation in our solar system and on a larger scale our very own Milky Way galaxy. Earth’s magnetosphere (and atmosphere) blocks out most of the radiation found all around us. Once humans leave Earth, whether it’s to go to the International Space Station (called the ISS for short), to the moon, or soon to Mars, we expose ourselves to large amounts of radiation. It is estimated that when humans make the trip to Mars, the radiation equivalent will be similar to getting a CT scan every few days (it is recommended, by our family medical doctor, you get fewer than 2 or 3 in your lifetime due to radiation levels).

Just how can we study the long-term effects of radiation? That’s right, scientists now studying the effects of radiation on the animals in Chernobyl. Timothy Mousseau, a researcher at University of South Carolina, explained the study as, “The secret to potential success for interstellar travel will come from looking at animals and plants and microbes on the Earth that have dealt with this kind of radiation in their evolutionary past, and their ability to either tolerate or completely avoid effects of this radiation,”. Mousseau has made countless trips back and forth to Chernobyl to study the wildlife to try to figure out the effects the radiation has had on them.

The radiation did have physical manifestations on the animals, causing deformation and asymmetry. Some animals had developed a tolerance to radiation levels, so not as many of them were as affected. With his research, Mousseau hopes to learn how the human body will react to the strong radiation in space. He stated, “I think that within human genomes, there are secrets to biological mechanisms for resisting or tolerating the effects of radiation. The trick is to figure out what those mechanisms are, and to maybe turn them on or enhance them in some way,”.

The ISS. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

While it is very difficult to say how humans will adapt to the radiation, it will certainly be interesting to see. You might be curious about the astronauts on the ISS, and why they aren’t horribly radiated. Well, the ISS is located close enough to Earth that they are protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere, so the radiation levels are not dangerous at all. The designers of the ISS took precautions in regards to radiation so our astronauts are safe.

What Happened At Chernobyl?

They’ve written dozens of books. Fat volumes, with commentaries. But the event is still beyond any philosophical description. Someone said to me, or maybe I read it, that the problem of Chernobyl presents itself first of all as a problem of self-understanding. – Sergei Sobolev, Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Many people have probably heard of the Chernobyl disaster but might not know exactly what happened there.

Chernobyl was a nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine that supplied power to Ukraine. On April 26, 1986, the crew performed a simulated power outage and turned off safety systems to intentionally to check the safety of the power plant and of the nuclear reactor’s ability to cool down (irony at its finest). Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. The reactor was not designed well and ended up having multiple flaws, and it was such that the safety systems couldn’t interfere since they were shut off, and the reactor became uncontrolled. Water rushed into the reactor and caused a massive steam explosion which caused a fire in reactor number 4. That fire burned for over a week and released a lot of radiation into the sky and even into Earth’s atmosphere.

Radiation levels at Chernobyl skyrocketed into ranges that were extremely unhealthy. When investigators first checked out radiation levels they believed that the reactor itself was still intact and that minimal radiation had been leaked. Why did they believe that? The radiation levels were so high that the dosimeter could not read them, so it showed next to no radiation being emitted because it was overwhelmed.

Pripyat

The town of Pripyat. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor was located in the small town of Pripyat. The town was established to basically house the plant workers and their families. After the nuclear reactor exploded, the Chernobyl directors in Moscow, Russia chose not to tell the people of Pripyat about the incident. Hours after the explosion people began feeling sick and vomited, coughed, had headaches, and many tasted something metallic.

About 24 hours after the explosion, Pripyat was forced to evacuate. Citizens had to drop everything and leave within a short period of time. They were told they would be able to return three days later but later made that evacuation permanent. If you were to visit Pripyat and Chernobyl today you will see how many personal effects and belongings were left behind, strewn across the land during a desperate attempt to escape the city.

Many people involved with Chernobyl died of radiation poisoning, while many suffered long-term health problems. It is estimated that Pripyat might be habitable again by 2070, but it is impossible to say whether or not it will take longer than that. Many women were borderline forced to have abortions who were in the zone that was radioactively affected to avoid deformities and mutations in the baby. Workers are currently working on removing the radioactive debris and also entombed nuclear reactor 4 in something called a “sarcophagus” in 1986 to help reduce the spread of radiation even more.

There are tours available that will take you to the power plant and allow you to explore Pripyat. There have also been various movies and even video games depicting Chernobyl and its effects on the world. Chernobyl was a learning experience for nuclear power, and even today is a learning experience for space exploration.

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