NASA is Sending Two 'Phantom Women' Dummies Around the Moon

Next year, NASA will send a pair of "phantom women" dummies on a trip around the moon with the aim of investigating the effects of space radiation on astronauts.

Designed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR,) the two dummies—known as Helga and Zohar—simulate adult female torsos. They are made from plastic which mimics human tissue—including the differing density between bones, soft tissue and other organs.

The dummies are fitted with more than 5,600 sensors each. These will be able to measure exposure to space radiation in the "skin" of the dummies all the way down to their "internal organs."

Space radiation poses a major health risk to astronauts in space and could be a limiting factor on long space journeys to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Helga and Zohar will launch aboard the Orion spacecraft—being developed by NASA and the European Space Agency—next year as part of Artemis 1. This crew-less mission will make a flyby of the moon before returning to Earth. It is an important step in NASA's long-term plans to land the first woman and next man on the lunar surface by 2024.

During the mission, Zohar will be wearing a special vest called StemRad which is designed to shield astronauts from harmful radiation. Helga meanwhile, will go unprotected. This will give researchers the chance to compare how the exposure of the two dummies to radiation, providing valuable information on how to protect future crews.

"We are very happy to fly [StemRad] on this mission," Thomas Berger, from the German Aerospace Center and lead scientist of the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment mission, told at the International Astronautical Congress on October 23.

The vest is made from high-density polyethylene—a common plastic which is used in everything from bulletproof vests to children's toys. This material is effective at blocking radioactive particles.

StemRad—developed by an Israel Space Agency-sponsored start-up—is thicker in areas which cover vital organs and other sensitive areas, such as the breast, stomach, intestines, lungs, bone marrow and ovaries.

Helga, dummy
This dummy, called Helga, is destined for a pioneering lunar flyby to help protect space travelers from cosmic rays and energetic solar storms. DLR

"We are relying on our expertise in protecting personnel in nuclear plants and emergency workers exposed to high levels of radiation or terrorist radiological threats," StemRad company director Oren Milstein said in a statement.

This version of StemRad has been designed for women's bodies—which are more vulnerable to radiation than men's—however, it can be easily adjusted for male use.

In space, two sources of radiation are a concern for astronauts: cosmic rays—high-energy protons and atomic nuclei which move through space at close to the speed of light—and radiation from energetic solar storms.

To put the situation into context, astronauts on the International Space Station—which orbits our planet at an altitude of around 250 miles—receive doses of radiation around 250 times higher than on Earth. In the space between planets, away from the effects of Earth's magnetic field, the impact on the human body could potentially be hundreds of times higher.

NASA's Artemis mission intends to land the "first woman and next man" on the moon by 2024 with a long-term goal of establishing a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. The space agency hopes that these missions will lay the necessary groundwork for future manned missions to Mars.