Saturday, June 1, 2013

Video: If Your Planning On Going To Mars, You Need To Think Twice

Astronauts on long interplanetary trips will face at least two kinds of radiation hazards. The Mars Science Lab's Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has quantified the risk. Crews could get much more than the current accepted career dose.

Worrying news for anyone keen on taking a trip to Mars: flying to the Red Planet and back could, in a single mission, expose you to a dose of radiation equivalent to two-thirds of the safe lifetime limit for astronauts, according to a new study led by NASA.

Scientists used measurements from the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the spacecraft that took the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet in 2012, to work out the radiation threat to humans travelling through deep space for long periods of time.

Missions to the Red Planet would take several years to complete and, during that time, astronauts would face health risks from two main types of radiation: cosmic rays and energetic particles from the sun, associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Both types of radiation can damage DNA and increase the risk of an astronaut developing cancer.

The high dose means that spacecraft bound for Mars will need good shielding to protect their human inhabitants. "For moon bases, there are already plans to bury habitation modules – a metre or two of lunar soil can reduce the exposure level significantly," said Jones. "Providing effective shielding for an entire spacecraft travelling to Mars is almost certainly impractical - it would be too heavy and therefore costly. It's more realistic to build a 'storm cellar' into the design: a highly shielded module where astronauts could shelter for up to several days during periods of high solar activity."

Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at the University of Leicester, added that shielding was only part of the solution for potential trips to Mars. Scientists would also need to monitor closely the activity of the sun and watch for coronal mass ejections and flares that were headed towards the spacecraft, so they could give the crew timely warnings to get into their shelters. Either that, he said, "or you start changing the level of risk that you deem to be acceptable for your astronauts".

Zeitlin's study is not the final word in working out an astronaut's radiation exposure on a Mars trip. Dartnell pointed out that MSL made its journey to Mars during a relatively quiet phase in the sun's activity cycle. He added that Nasa still had to report on the levels of radiation on the surface of Mars, where astronauts might spend a year or longer during a mission, thus increasing their radiation dose even further.
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