It's one small step for mannequins, one giant leap for mannequin kind.
In 2020, as NASA launches the Orion spacecraft as part of Artemis I – the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will hopefully lead to the first woman and the next man landing on the Moon (and eventually Mars) – two "phantom" women will be on board. The mannequins, named Helga and Zohar, will travel further than any human has before on a spacecraft that will cover more distance than any spacecraft designed for humans has ever flown.
The two dummies will be sitting in the passenger seats with the important task of being blasted with radiation during their trip, in order to measure the effectiveness of new suits designed to protect organs and tissues most sensitive to radiation.
The dummies are made up of 38 slices of tissue-equivalent plastics simulated to replicate the varying density of tissues, bones, and organs in adult female torsos. They'll be fitted with 5,600 sensors according to the European Space Agency (ESA) in order to measure the amount of radiation that astronauts will face on future missions.
Developed by Israeli-American company StemRad, the AstroRad vests, according to tests they've already conducted here on Earth, should provide protection for astronauts on par with the storm shelter of the Orion crew module, which astronauts will take cover inside if a solar radiation event should occur. If testing proves successful, this would mean astronauts could perform important activities even during a proton storm, StemRad claims.
The suits, which are made for female torsos but can be adjusted to fit male bodies (in a reversal of all space suits up to now) use polythene blocks that are already used to protect astronauts' sleeping quarters on the International Space Station, Space.com reports.
"The shielding itself in the AstroRad is comprised of a polymer with a high abundance of hydrogen which is advantageous for shielding against space radiation because it minimizes the generation of secondary radiation," StemRad said.
"Individual solid shielding elements are organized into a scale-like architecture to allow for uninhibited, comfortable movement of the astronauts while wearing the AstroRad."
"StemRad is currently exploring the use of recycled plastics materials generated onboard future spacecraft for use in the shielding elements, which would dramatically decrease the payload mass associated with the equipment," they add on their website.
During the mission one mannequin, Zohar, will be the lucky one who gets to wear the suit, whilst Helga will face the full effects of galactic cosmic rays and solar particles emitted by the Sun during solar flares (solar particle events). If all goes to plan, human astronauts will soon follow in Zohar's footsteps.