Measurements taken by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission as it delivered the Curiosity rover to Mars in 2012 are providing NASA the information it needs to design systems to protect human explorers from radiation exposure on deep-space expeditions in the future.
Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) is the first instrument to measure the radiation environment during a Mars cruise mission from inside a spacecraft that is similar to potential human exploration spacecraft. The findings reduce uncertainty about the effectiveness of radiation shielding and provide vital information to space mission designers who will need to build in protection for spacecraft occupants in the future.
“As this nation strives to reach an asteroid and Mars in our lifetimes, we’re working to solve every puzzle nature poses to keep astronauts safe so they can explore the unknown and return home,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations in Washington. “We learn more about the human body’s ability to adapt to space every day aboard the International Space Station. As we build the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket to carry and shelter us in deep space, we’ll continue to make the advances we need in life sciences to reduce risks for our explorers. Curiosity’s RAD instrument is giving us critical data we need so that we humans, like the rover, can dare mighty things to reach the Red Planet.”
The findings, which are published in the May 31 edition of the journal Science, indicate radiation exposure for human explorers could exceed NASA’s career limit for astronauts if current propulsion systems are used.
Two forms of radiation pose potential health risks to astronauts in deep space. One is galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), particles caused by supernova explosions and other high-energy events outside the solar system. The other is solar energetic particles (SEPs) associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun.
Radiation exposure is measured in units of Sievert (Sv) or milliSievert (one one-thousandth Sv). Long-term population studies have shown exposure to radiation increases a person’s lifetime cancer risk. Exposure to a dose of 1 Sv, accumulated over time, is associated with a five percent increase in risk for developing fatal cancer.
Current spacecraft shield much more effectively against SEPs than GCRs. To protect against the comparatively low energy of typical SEPs, astronauts might need to move into havens with extra shielding on a spacecraft or on the Martian surface, or employ other countermeasures. GCRs tend to be highly energetic, highly penetrating particles that are not stopped by the modest shielding provided by a typical spacecraft.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JSC