Members of Blue Origin's Radiation Effects Team pose while testing space travel equpiment at Provision CARES Proton Therapy Knoxville

How protons created an unlikely connection between cancer treatment and space travel


Published: Sep 10, 2021 at 11:52 AM EDT

What do you envision when you look at the sky and think of outer space?

We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Merek Chertkow of Blue Origin, an aerospace company whose mission is to benefit the Earth by one day sending millions of people to live and work in space. (Side note: Just days after we spoke to him, Blue Origin made headlines by successfully completing New Shepard’s first human flight!)

Merek Chertkow is the Director of Radiation Effects for Blue OriginDid you know that Blue Origin actually uses ProNova’s radiation effects testing facility in Knoxville to test some of its equipment? That’s so cool! But… We were curious to know why a company that builds rocket ships and space vehicles was testing its equipment in a building most people recognize as a cancer treatment center. So, we sat down with Chertkow, Blue Origin’s Direction of Radiation Effects, to ask him a few questions.

Right away though, he flipped the script and asked us an intriguing question: “What do you envision when you look at the sky and think of outer space?”

Now, most of us probably think it’s a cold, deep, dark vacuum like we see in the movies, right? But as Chertkow explained, Hollywood doesn’t always get it right!

What is outer space really like?

“What actually happens is stars go through their life cycle and then they eventually explode,” says Chertkow. “When they explode, that’s where all of the different atoms from the periodic table of elements are formed. So, you have this matter – little atoms – traveling through the cosmos forming new stars, planets, and charged plasmas. These ballistic cosmic particles are just flying everywhere, and they can negatively affect the electronics of space vehicles.”

And that’s where the connection between outer space and proton therapy begins. You see, most of those little atoms are protons. So, using ProNova’s proton therapy equipment, Blue Origin can find out what happens when these seriously fast-moving protons fly through their equipment!

“Space is a really harsh environment for electronics. When you put a spacecraft in space, charged ions can make electronics break,” Chertkow notes.

To make sure their systems don’t fail when they reach outer space, people like Chertkow and his team do radiation effects testing on electronics by placing them in front of a proton beam.

“We got lucky that ProNova’s system happens to use protons of a certain energy that are similar to the ones in space,” says Chertkow. “We can do ground-based testing that’s faster and easier.”

Not to mention, more cost-effective, too. Think about how expensive it could get if they had to launch all their equipment into space just to find out what happens when all those space protons hit it!

How does radiation effects testing work?

I asked Chertkow how the testing itself actually works. In a nutshell, they put whatever equipment they are testing on the table in front of the beam. (It’s the same kind of table a patient might lay on for treatment, only this beam is dedicated to radiation effects testing and not used to treat patients.) Then they clear the room, send some protons toward the equipment, and watch and see what happens next.

Sometimes the equipment breaks completely. Other times it pops, shorts out, or burns out. The radiation effects testing team, which consists of engineers and physicists, collects all this data and uses it to make modifications.

“We work with the engineers who are designing the computers and rockets,” notes Chertkow. “Basically, we say, ‘Look, here’s why it breaks in the beam. You need to go back and redesign it per our recommendations.'”

Why should humans live in space?

The goal of Blue Origin’s testing at the ProNova site is to understand how their equipment is going to respond in space, and to mitigate those problems so their rockets and space vehicles function properly. It’s all part of their ultimate mission to help preserve the Earth by facilitating human life in outer space.

Chertkow also says he’s amazed at how protons can be used for such different applications – whether it’s testing space equipment or treating cancer – and still share similar goals.

“Everybody wants to be safe and happy here on Earth. And while I think treating cancer is critically important, I’m lucky to be able to help humanity in another way.”