New evidence suggests future astronauts could survive on Mars

Scott Sutherland
GeekquinoxNovember 20, 2012

The Mars Curiosity rover has sent back data from its Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) that shows radiation levels on the Martian surface are roughly equivalent to those experienced by astronauts on the International Space Station. These readings — the first measurements of radiation levels ever taken from the surface of another planet — provide solid evidence that any manned missions we send to the Red Planet would be safe from radiation for limited amounts of time.

"Absolutely, astronauts can live in this environment," said Donald Hassler, principle investigator for the RAD instrument, according to Huffington Post. Hassler is the program director of the Space Science and Engineering Division of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Solar and cosmic radiation levels here on Earth are limited by both the planet's magnetic field and its thick atmosphere. In contrast, Mars has no magnetic field and has only a thin atmosphere — 1000 times thinner than Earth's — to control radiation levels at the surface. Atmospheric pressure readings by Curiosity ranged between 680 and 780 Pascals each day, a variation of about 8 per cent, which resulted in a variation of about three to five per cent in radiation levels. Highest radiation levels were during the Martian 'afternoon', when the higher temperature causes the atmosphere to expand and thin out, and lowest levels were overnight, when the colder temperatures condensed the atmosphere.

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Although these numbers are just preliminary, Haddler says that they should have the numbers finalized and released in early December.

"Basically, there's calibrations and characterizations that we're finalizing to get those numbers precise." he said.

Curiosity has only been on the Martian surface for a little over three months, and it continues to collect weather and radiation data all the time. The NASA team will be able to refine these numbers throughout different weather conditions and through the different Martian seasons.

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We're a long ways off from a manned mission to Mars, but these findings are exactly what we need to even start planning for them. Knowing that we already possess the technology to protect anyone we send to explore Mars is an excellent first step towards making that mission a reality.