May 18, 2022 - Science

NASA will test female dummies in space

Illustration of the Orion space capsule with female mannequins in it.
Illustration of the "crew" of the Artemis 1 mis­sion to the moon. Image courtesy of NASA/Lockheed Martin/DLR

NASA's Artemis missions, which aim to send a human crew — including a woman and a person of color — to the moon by 2025, will shoot female dummies into space first to test the effects of radiation on them.

Why it matters: Artemis is a prelude to sending human astronauts to Mars, NASA says, and "women appear to be at a greater risk of suffering from the harmful effects of space radiation" than men, Gizmodo reports.

What's happening: This summer, the first of three planned Artemis missions is expected to launch into orbit — not with humans, but with "two identical ‘phantoms’ representative of the female body," according to the German Aerospace Center, the NASA partner that developed the mannequins.

  • The dummies, nicknamed Helga and Zohar, will include "more than 10,000 passive sensors and 34 active radiation detectors," said the German Aerospace Center, or DLR.
  • The mannequins will "investigate radiation exposure throughout the flight, which may last up to six weeks."

Details: The German agency says the twin mannequins are "modeled on female bodies" and made from "materials that mimic human bones, soft tissues and organs of adult women."

  • Women are at greater risk of cancer than men, "so different radiation boundary values always apply to female astronauts," the DLR said.
  • "However, so far there have been no sex-specific measurements using phantoms in space."
  • Helga will fly to the moon unprotected, while Zohar will wear a newly developed radiation vest called the AstroRad.

The big picture: Solving the radiation problem will help NASA with its long-term goal of getting humans to Mars. Outside of the Earth's protective shield, human bodies are far more vulnerable to the harmful effects of radiation.

  • "Studies of radiation exposure for men and women indicate a higher chance of women developing cancer, while other research has found that space radiation is likely to affect female reproductive health," Gizmodo says.

In the Artemis 1 mission, NASA's Space Launch System will take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this year and send a capsule named Orion around the moon and back, the New York Times reports.

  • Artemis 2 will trace the same path — but with astronauts, sometime in 2024.
  • "The third mission, Artemis 3, will result in a moon landing," per the Times.

What they're saying: With the Artemis flights, "we will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon," NASA says. "Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars."

Go deeper