During flight, we are more exposed to cosmic radiation than at the ground. Cosmic radiation refers to sources of radiation in the form of cosmic rays that come from the Sun or from outer space. The primary cosmic radiation consist of a mixture of high-energy protons (~87%), alpha particles (~11%), high-energy electrons (~1%) and a trace of heavier nuclei (~1%).
The dose rate from cosmic radiation varies in different parts of the world and it depends strongly on the geomagnetic field, altitude, and solar cycle. Exposure to cosmic radiation increases rapidly with altitude. In flight there are two principal sources of natural radiation to consider: Galactic Cosmic Rays which are always present, and Solar Proton Events, sometimes called Solar Cosmic Ray (SCR) events, which occur sporadically. The dose rate from cosmic radiation varies in different parts of the world and it depends strongly on the geomagnetic field, altitude, and solar cycle. The radiation field at aircraft altitudes consist of neutrons, protons and pions. In flight, neutrons contribute 40 – 80% of the equivalent dose, depending on the geomagnetic field, altitude, and solar cycle. The cosmic radiation dose rate on airplanes is so high (but not dangerous) that, according to the United Nations UNSCEAR 2000 Report, airline flight crew workers receive more dose on average than any other worker, including those in nuclear power plants.
The ground level dose rate is on average about 0.10 μSv/h, but at the maximum flight altitude (8.8 km or 29,000 ft) it can reach about 2.0 μSv/h (or even higher values). A dose rate of 4 μSv/h may be used to represent the average dose rate for all long haul flights (due to higher altitudes). It must be added, for supersonic planes like the Concorde, that could make a transatlantic flight in 3.5 hours, the exposure rate (about 9 μSv/h) at their altitude of 18 km was increased enough to result in the same cosmic ray exposure per crossing as for conventional jets trundling along at about 8 km.
Shielding of Cosmic Radiation
Earth’s magnetic field provides a vital radiation shield of cosmic radiation. During flight, shielding provided by Earth’s magnetic field is much more important than at the ground level, since at the ground level the atmosphere also contributes. Therefore, in addition to a protective atmosphere, we are very lucky that Earth has a magnetic field. Magnetic field extends several tens of thousands of kilometers into space, protecting the Earth from the charged particles of the solar wind and cosmic rays that would otherwise strip away the upper atmosphere, including the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. It shields us from the full effects of the solar wind and GCR. Without this protection, Earth’s biosphere might not exist as it does today, or would be at least limited to the subsurface. Earth’s magnetic field provides also a radiation shield for astronauts and the ISS itself, because it is in low Earth orbit.
Calculations of the loss of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere of Mars, resulting from scavenging of ions by the solar wind, indicate that the dissipation of the magnetic field of Mars caused a near total loss of its atmosphere.
Radiation in Flight – Is it dangerous?
We must emphasize, eating bananas, working as airline flight crew or living in locations with, increases your annual dose rate. But it does not mean, that it must be dangerous. In each case, intensity of radiation also matters. It is very similar as for heat from a fire (less energetic radiation). If you are too close, the intensity of heat radiation is high and you can get burned. If you are at the right distance, you can withstand there without any problems and moreover it is comfortable. If you are too far from heat source, the insufficiency of heat can also hurt you. This analogy, in a certain sense, can be applied to radiation also from radiation sources.
In case of radiation in flight, we are talking about so called “low doses”. Low dose here means additional small doses comparable to the normal background radiation (10 µSv = average daily dose received from natural background). The doses are very very low and therefore the probability of cancer induction could be almost negligible. Secondly, and this is crucial, the truth about low-dose radiation health effects still needs to be found. It is not exactly known, whether these low doses of radiation are detrimental or beneficial (and where is the threshold). Government and regulatory bodies assume a LNT model instead of a threshold or hormesis not because it is the more scientifically convincing, but because it is the more conservative estimate. Problem of this model is that it neglects a number of defence biological processes that may be crucial at low doses. The research during the last two decades is very interesting and show that small doses of radiation given at a low dose rate stimulate the defense mechanisms. Therefore the LNT model is not universally accepted with some proposing an adaptive dose–response relationship where low doses are protective and high doses are detrimental. Many studies have contradicted the LNT model and many of these have shown adaptive response to low dose radiation resulting in reduced mutations and cancers. This phenomenon is known as radiation hormesis.