NASA is developing technologies to counter space radiation – one of the biggest challenges for human journey to Mars – to ensure a safe and successful exploration of the red planet. “Some people think that radiation will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that is not the current situation,” said Pat Troutman, NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead. “When we add the various mitigation techniques up, we are optimistic it will lead to a successful Mars mission with a healthy crew that will live a very long and productive life after they return to Earth,” said Troutman.
Space radiation is quite different and more dangerous than radiation on Earth, NASA said. Even though the International Space Station (ISS) sits just within Earth’s protective magnetic field, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what is naturally occurring on Earth, the US space agency said. Outside the magnetic field there are galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), solar particle events (SPEs) and the Van Allen Belts, which contain trapped space radiation.
NASA is able to protect the crew from SPEs by advising them to shelter in an area with additional shielding materials. However, GCRs are much more challenging to protect against. These highly energetic particles come from all over the galaxy. They are so energetic they can tear right through metals, plastic, water and cellular material. “One of the most challenging parts for the human journey to Mars is the risk of radiation exposure and the inflight and long-term health consequences of the exposure,” said Lisa Simonsen, NASA Space Radiation Element Scientist.
“This ionising radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA and alters many cellular processes,” said Simonsen. NASA is evaluating various materials and concepts to shield the crew from GCRs. Researchers are developing and evaluating shielding concepts for transport vehicles, habitats and space suits with state of the art models.
Scientists are investigating pharmaceutical counter- measures, which may be more effective than shielding to protect crews from GCRs, NASA said. Engineers are developing enhanced space weather forecasting tools and studying faster rockets to reduce the time spent in space and exposure to radiation, according to the US space agency. NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division is also developing various space radiation detection and mitigation technologies.
“Mars is the best option we have right now for expanding long-term, human presence,” Troutman said. “We have already found valuable resources for sustaining humans, such as water ice just below the surface and past geological and climate evidence that Mars at one time had conditions suitable for life. “What we learn about Mars will tell us more about Earth’s past and future and may help answer whether life exists beyond our planet,” said Troutman.