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Health Phys. 2012 Nov;103(5):540-6. doi: 10.1097/HP.0b013e3182611125.

Physical interactions of charged particles for radiotherapy and space applications.

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  • 1Southwest Research Institute, 1050 Walnut St., Suite 300, Boulder, CO 80302, USA.


In this paper, the basic physics by which energetic charged particles deposit energy in matter is reviewed. Energetic charged particles are used for radiotherapy and are encountered in spaceflight, where they pose a health risk to astronauts. They interact with matter through nuclear and electromagnetic forces. Deposition of energy occurs mostly along the trajectory of the incoming particle, but depending on the type of incident particle and its energy, there is some nonzero probability for energy deposition relatively far from the nominal trajectory, either due to long-ranged knock-on electrons (sometimes called delta rays) or from the products of nuclear fragmentation, including neutrons. In the therapy setting, dose localization is of paramount importance, and the deposition of energy outside nominal treatment volumes complicates planning and increases the risk of secondary cancers as well as noncancer effects in normal tissue. Statistical effects are also important and will be discussed. In contrast to radiation therapy patients, astronauts in space receive comparatively small whole-body radiation doses from energetic charged particles and associated secondary radiation. A unique aspect of space radiation exposures is the high-energy heavy-ion component of the dose. This is not present in terrestrial exposures except in carbon-ion radiotherapy. Designers of space missions must limit exposures to keep risk within acceptable limits. These limits are, at present, defined for low-Earth orbit, but not for deep-space missions outside the geomagnetosphere. Most of the uncertainty in risk assessment for such missions comes from the lack of understanding of the biological effectiveness of the heavy-ion component, with a smaller component due to uncertainties in transport physics and dosimetry. These same uncertainties are also critical in the therapy setting.

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