‘Phantom Head’ Headed Back into Space
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ It’s known by NASA as the ″Phantom Head,″ a human skull filled with sensors to measure the dose of space radiation that astronauts receive.
The skull goes into space aboard the shuttle Discovery for the third and probably last time Tuesday. Its keeper in orbit, astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, hopes the trip will put an end to all jokes about the ″phantom passenger.″
″It’s not a passenger. It’s a device, actually a very sophisticated one and one that has considerable potential to provide some very significant data to all of the people within NASA who are trying to measure crew health,″ she said.
The head is crammed with instruments that bring its weight to more than 20 pounds, and covered with a black plastic material simulating human skin. It contains as many as 600 tiny measuring devices called dosimeters.
As in the two previous missions, the skull will be mounted to a wall in the shuttle middeck near the lower end of an astronaut sleeping bag. It will be kept in a fire-retardant bag.
″It’s not like it’s hooked there staring at people,″ said NASA spokesman Brian Welch.
The skull will help scientists determine how much radiation penetrates the astronauts heads when they are in space. Such data may be crucial for planning extended space station missions and lengthy stays on the moon and Mars.
″It would be medically irresponsible to commit crews to some of the high- flown ideas we have without understanding their safety,″ Sullivan said. The skull is one of 11 devices inside Discovery that will monitor various kinds of radiation in space.
Although the radiation-monitoring devices do not rival the sophisticiation of Discovery’s primary payload, the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope, they are equally important to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said Gautam Badhwar, the Johnson Space Center physicist in charge of the experiment.
″Hubble has a very fundamental importance in terms of astronomy and how we understand the solar system and the universe around us, whereas the radiation experiments are much more local,″ he said. ″They are designed for the safety of the astronauts for both today and for future flights.″
The skull first went into space on a Defense Department flight in August, but its existence was not acknowleged until after a second secret military mission, that of the Atlantis, ended March 4.
The space agency plans to send an entire human torso into space but not until the current data is analyzed further, Badhwar said.
Data collected from the Atlantis mission still is being studied, Badhwar said. But results from the skull’s first venture into space indicate there is twice as much neutron radiation in an orbiting shuttle than NASA had expected at high energy levels.
The extra radiation poses no danger to astronauts, Badhwar said.
Welch said NASA decided to send the skull, or DSO469 as it’s formally known, on Discovery’s five-day flight because the shuttle will ascend to 380 miles, the highest a shuttle has ever gone.