Cosmic radiation refers to sources of radiation in the form of cosmic rays that come from the Sun or from outer space. The earth has always been bombarded by high-energy particles originating in outer space that generate secondary particle showers in the lower atmosphere. Charged particles (especially high-energy protons) from the sun and outer space interact with the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field to produce a shower of radiation (i.e. air shower), typically beta and gamma radiation. If you live at higher elevations or are a frequent airline passenger, this exposure can be significantly higher, since the atmosphere is thinner here. The effects of the earth’s magnetic field also determines the dose from cosmic radiation.
At ground level the muons, with energies mostly between 1 and 20 GeV, contribute about 75 % of the absorbed dose rate in free air. The remainder comes from electrons produced by the muons or present in the electromagnetic cascade. The annual cosmic ray dose at sea level is around 0.27 mSv (27 mrem).
Composition of Cosmic Radiation
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 energy of these particles range between 108 eV and 1020 eV. A very small fraction are stable particles of antimatter, such as positrons or antiprotons. The precise nature of this remaining fraction is an area of active research.
Subsequently, a large number of secondary particles, in particular, neutrons and charged pions are produced as a result of interactions between primary particles and the earth’s atmosphere. Since pions are short-lived subatomic particles, the subsequent decay of the pions result in the production of high-energy muons. At ground level the muons, with energies mostly between 1 and 20 GeV, contribute about 75 % of the absorbed dose rate in free air. 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 cosmic radiation dose rate on airplanes is so high 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.
We also have to include the neutrons at ground level. Cosmic rays interact with nuclei in the atmosphere, and produce also high-energy neutrons. According to UNSCEAR the fluency of neutrons is 0.0123 cm-2s–1 at sea level for a geomagnetic latitude of 45 N. Based on this, the effective annual dose from neutrons at sea level and at 50 degree latitude is estimated to be 0.08 mSv (8 mrem). Noteworthy, in the vicinity of larger heavier objects, e.g. buildings or ships, the neutron flux measures higher. This effect is known as “cosmic ray induced neutron signature”, or “ship effect” as it was first detected with ships at sea. Cosmic rays create showers in the atmosphere that include a broad spectrum of secondary neutrons, muons and protons. The secondary neutrons may be of a very high energy and may induce spallation events in materials at ground level. Therefore in the vicinity of larger heavier objects, these multiple neutrons produced in spallation events are referred to as “ship effect” neutrons.
Dose Rate in Airplane – Radiation in Flight
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.