Lunar and Planetary Institute

Space Radiation - UV Man
EXPLORE! Health in Space

Space Radiation - UV Man


Children ages 8–13 construct UV Man! (or woman or dog!) and equip him with special radiation detectors to investigate the source of ultraviolet radiation in this 60 minute activity. They explore how we can protect UV Man! — and ourselves! — from being exposed to too much UV radiation.

What's the Point?

  • Ultraviolet radiation comes from our Sun
  • While some ultraviolet radiation is necessary, too much can harm humans (and other living organisms)
  • There are ways we can protect ourselves from harmful UV radiation


For each child:

  • 3 UV beads (can be found in craft stores; other sources listed below)
  • 2 non-UV beads
  • 2 pipe cleaners, preferably white
  • Scissors
  • Various materials that will "protect" UV Man! from ultraviolet radiation, for example: construction paper of different colors, foil, plastic wrap (of various colors), paper sunglasses (may be obtained from an optometrist), sunscreen (try different SPFs), masking tape, paper, cloth, etc. You may even wish to include containers of water for the children to experiment with!

Sources for UV Beads:
Educational Innovations
Phone: 1-888-912-7474 / Fax: 203-229-0740

Steve Spangler Science
Phone: 1-800-223-9080

Sundance Solar
Phone: 603-456-2020 / FAX: 603-456-3298

For the facilitator:


  • Locate an outdoor area close by that has both shady and sunny spots, if possible.
  • Review the supporting information to prepare for the children's discussions.


Introduce the topic of solar radiation. The children may be unfamiliar with UV radiation and its effect on skin; you may need to lead them through the discussion.

  • What does our Sun provide to us? Light and heat.
  • What happens when we stay outside in the Sun for too long? We get sunburned!
  • What is the part of the Sun's energy that causes our skin to burn? Ultraviolet energy or radiation. This energy is invisible to our eyes and we cannot feel it, but it still affects our bodies.
  • What protects Earth from much of the UV radiation? Our atmosphere blocks much of the Sun's UV light. The ozone layer in our upper atmosphere forms a protective sphere, absorbing much of the UV energy.
  • How do we protect ourselves from getting burned by the Sun? We wear clothing and use sun block.

2. Invite participants to construct a UV Man! (or woman or dog!). Explain that they will equip him with radiation detectors (UV beads) that are made from a special pigment that is very sensitive and turns colors when exposed to the ultraviolet rays. With the help of UV Man! they will investigate the source of ultraviolet radiation and how we can best protect UV Man! — and ourselves! — from it.

UV ManTo construct one UV Man! (or woman or dog!):

  1. Cut two pipe cleaners in half
  2. Fold one piece in half; these will be his legs.
  3. Connect a second piece to the legs to make his torso
  4. Thread the beads onto his torso, alternating UV with non-UV beads. Slide all the beads toward UV Man's legs.
  5. Twist the third piece around the torso above the beads to make arms.
  6. Form a circle with the last piece and use it for his head.

3. When the children finish, ask them what they observe.

  • What color are UV Man's UV radiation detectors — the UV beads? White or creamy
  • Are UV Man's radiation detectors picking up any signs of radiation in this building? No
  • Do you think UV Man's radiation detectors will turn colors if he goes out into the Sun? Why or why not? Answers will vary
  • Will his radiation detectors turn colors if he goes outside into the shade? Why or why not? Answers will vary.

4. Ask the children to cover UV Man's radiation detectors with their hands so that no light can get in, and then take him outside. Have them stand in the shade and uncover their UV Man! What do they observe happens to UV Man's radiation detectors? The beads become lightly colored if the children are standing in light shade, indicating that, even in the shade, there is some UV radiation reaching the detectors and our skin.

5. Ask the children to cover UV Man with their hands again so that no light reaches him. Keep UV Man covered for about 1 minute while the beads change back to white. Use this opportunity to discuss their observations.

6. Let the children now take UV Man! into the full Sun. What happens to the beads? The beads become deeply colored, reacting to the intensity of the UV radiation to which they are being exposed.

7. Return to the room and continue the discussion.

  • What happened to UV Man's radiation detectors? They changed colors
  • Did they change in the shade? Yes — a little.
  • In the Sun? Yes — a lot!
  • Where did they change the most? In the direct Sun light.
  • Was your prediction correct? Answers will vary.
  • What caused UV Man's radiation detectors to change colors? The ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.
  • What happened to his radiation detectors after coming back inside, and what caused it? They changed back to white because they were no longer detecting any radiation. UV radiation does not get through the building.

Some children may say light caused them to change, and others may say heat. Remind them of their observations about the beads inside; the beads were white, even though they were in the light of the room. Ask them what happened to their beads when they brought them back inside; the beads changed from a colored state in the Sun back to white in the room light. Light does not affect the beads. If it is heat that causes the change, invite the children to hold beads in their fists; the beads do not change color when heated. They can also heat the beads with a hair dryer. The cause of the change comes from the Sun; it is from the part of the Sun's spectrum we do not see or feel directly.

  • What did this experiment tell you about UV radiation and YOU? Just like UV Man, you are exposed to UV radiation when you are outside.
  • How do we protect ourselves from UV radiation? Answers may include wearing clothing, using sun block, using umbrellas, or staying inside.

8. Invite the children to protect UV Man! from UV radiation. Provide them with two materials to cover him or protect him in other ways. To get them started, have them make a construction paper poncho or shirt to cover the top UV bead. Have them test at least two additional ways to protect UV Man! by covering him with the materials you have provided. Have them take UV Man! outside again to test each material.

9. As a group, have the children share their experiments and observations.

  • What materials offered the best protection for UV Man? The worst? None at all?
  • The Sun's rays turned UV Man! colors. Do the Sun's rays ever turn you colors? Yes!
  • What practical things can, and should, you do to protect yourself from UV rays? Wear protective clothing, use sunscreen, don't stay out in the Sun for extended periods, and definitely don't expect the shade to protect you! Overexposure to UV rays causes the skin to burn, sometimes badly (ouch!!). And extreme or excessive burning of the skin can lead to skin cancer.

10. Share with the children that with UV Man's help they have demonstrated the effects of the Sun's ultraviolet rays on objects (and people!) on Earth. In the next activities they will investigate a special characteristic of our planet that protects it from receiving even more UV radiation than it already does, and whether or not UV radiation is a challenge to living and working in space.


Ask the group to share their thoughts about ultraviolet radiation. Where does it come from? Is it dangerous? How can we protect ourselves from it?

A Little Background for the Facilitator

Light and heat are part of the spectrum of energy — or radiation — our Sun provides. We can "see" light and we can "feel" heat. But there are other types of energy that our Sun produces. Much of this energy makes up the electromagnetic spectrum. Light is part of the visible section of the spectrum and heat is part of the infrared section of the spectrum. Radio waves, microwaves, ultraviolet rays, X-rays, and gamma-rays all are parts of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy — or radiation — from the Sun.

Radiation is energy that travels in waves or as particles. Radio waves, microwaves, visible light, and infrared radiation have relatively long wavelengths and low energy. But ultraviolet rays, X-rays, and gamma-rays have shorter wavelengths and higher energy. This shorter wavelength is so small that these wavelengths interact with human skin, and cells, and even parts of cells — for good or for bad!

Our Sun also produces cosmic radiation. Cosmic rays are very high energy, fast moving particles (protons, electrons, and neutrinos) that can damage DNA, increasing the risk of cancer and causing other health issues. Cosmic rays have such high energy that it is difficult to design shielding that blocks them, Cosmic rays do not only come from our Sun, but from other places in our galaxy and universe.

Human Eye Response

The subject of this activity is ultraviolet — UV — radiation. Humans need UV radiation because our skin uses it to manufacture vitamin D, which is vital to maintaining healthy bones. About 10 minutes of Sun each day allows our skin to make the recommended amount of vitamin D. However, too much exposure to UV causes the skin to burn and leads to wrinkled and patchy skin, skin cancer, and cataracts.

On Earth, we are protected by our atmosphere from most UV radiation coming from the Sun. The Ozone layer absorbs much of the UV portion of the spectrum (UVB and UVC). Some still gets through (UVA and a bit of UVB). We can protect ourselves completely by covering ourselves with clothing and using sun block. Our atmosphere protects us from most of the X-, gamma-, and cosmic radiation as well.

In space there is no atmosphere to protect astronauts from UV radiation — or from X-rays and gamma-rays, or even more dangerous cosmic rays. Astronauts have to provide their own protection in the form of space suits and space stations. These measures work very well for protecting against UV radiation, but the higher energy radiation is not completely blocked. Even with protective shielding, astronauts aboard the International Space Station receive a daily dosage of radiation about equal to 8 chest X-rays!

The UV-sensitive beads used in this experiment serve as UV radiation detectors. They contain a pigment that changes color when exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the Sun or from UV lights. The intensity of the color corresponds to the intensity of the UV radiation. When shielded from UV sources, or when exposed to light that does not contain UV radiation — such as indoor light bulbs — the beads remain white. The beads are designed for multiple use and, according to the manufacturers, will change color up to 50,000 times.

Last updated
February 9, 2010

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