HZE ions are the high-energy nuclei component of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) which have an electric charge greater than +2. HZE ions include the nuclei of all elements heavier than hydrogen (which has a +1 charge) and helium (which has a +2 charge). Each HZE ion consists of a nucleus with no orbiting electrons, meaning that the charge on the ion is the same as the atomic number of the nucleus.
HZE ions are rare compared to protons, for example, composing only 1% of GCRs versus 85% for protons. HZE ions, like other GCRs, travel near the speed of light. Their source is likely to be supernova explosions. The abbreviation "HZE" comes from high (H) atomic number (Z) and energy (E).
In addition to the HZE ions from cosmic sources, HZE ions are produced by the sun. During solar flares and other solar storms, HZE ions are sometimes produced in small amounts along with the more typical protons, but their energy level is substantially smaller than HZE ions from cosmic rays.
Health concerns of HZE ions
Although HZE ions make up a small proportion of cosmic rays, their high charge and high energies cause them to contribute significantly to the overall biological impact of cosmic rays, making them as significant as protons in regard to biological impact. The most dangerous GCRs are heavy ionized nuclei such as Fe +26, an iron nucleus with a charge of +26. Such heavy particles are "much more energetic (millions of MeV) than typical protons accelerated by solar flares (tens to hundreds of MeV)." HZE ions can therefore penetrate through thick layers of shielding and body tissue, "breaking the strands of DNA molecules, damaging genes and killing cells."
For HZE ions that originate from solar particle events (SPEs), there is only a small contribution toward a person's absorbed dose of radiation. During a SPE, there is such a small amount of heavy ions generated that their effects are limited. Their energies per atomic mass unit are all significantly less than protons found in the same SPE, meaning that protons are by far the largest contribution to astronaut body exposure during SPEs.
- Cosmic ray
- High energy nuclear physics
- Ionizing radiation See section on Cosmic radiation
- Solar energetic particles
- Spaceflight radiation carcinogenesis
- Schimmerling, Walter. "The Space Radiation Environment: An Introduction". The Health Risks of Extraterrestrial Environments. Universities Space Research Association Division of Space Life Sciences. Retrieved 12/05/2011.
- Can People go to Mars? Science@NASA, February 17, 2004.
- Contribution of High Charge and Energy (HZE) Ions During Solar-Particle Event of September 29, 1989 Kim, Myung-Hee Y.; Wilson, John W.; Cucinotta, Francis A.; Simonsen, Lisa C.; Atwell, William; Badavi, Francis F.; Miller, Jack, NASA Johnson Space Center; Langley Research Center, May 1999.