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Phosphenes in Low Earth Orbit: Survey Responses from 59 Astronauts

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Fuglesang C, Narici L, Picozza P, Sannita WG. Phosphenes in low Earth orbit: survey responses from 59 astronauts. Aviat Space Environ Med 2006; 77:449–452.

Introduction: It has long been known that many people in space experience sudden phosphenes, or light flashes. Although it is clear that they are related to high-energy particles in the space radiation environment, many details about them are still unknown. In an effort to gain more knowledge about the light flashes, a study was initiated to collect information from people who have recently flown in space. Method: A survey conducted by anonymous questionnaire was performed among astronauts regarding their experience of sudden light flashes in space. In all, 98 surveys were distributed to current NASA and ESA astronauts. Results: Among the 59 respondents, 47 noticed them sometime during spaceflight. Most often they were noted before sleep, and several people even thought the light flashes disturbed their sleep. The light flashes predominantly appear white, have elongated shapes, and most interestingly, often come with a sense of motion. The motion is described as sideways, diagonal, or in-out, but never in the vertical direction. Discussion: Comparisons with earlier studies of light flashes in space and several ground-based studies during the 1970s are made. One interesting observation from this is that it seems that a small fraction of the light flashes is caused by Cherenkov radiation, while the majority is probably caused by some kind of direct interaction with elements in the retina.
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Keywords: high energy particles; phosphenes; radiation; spaceflight

Document Type: Short Communication

Publication date: April 1, 2006

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