Curiosity Self Portrait at Murray Buttes
Science & Technology

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Is Making Mars Safer for Astronauts – Here’s How

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, to take this selfie on the “Quela” drilling location within the “Murray Buttes” space on decrease Mount Sharp between September 17 and 18, 2016. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A radiation sensor aboard the spacecraft is offering new information on the well being dangers people would face on the floor.

May lava tubes, caves, or subsurface habitats supply secure refuge for future astronauts on Mars? Scientists with NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover workforce are serving to discover questions like that with the Radiation Evaluation Detector, or RAD.

In contrast to Earth, Mars doesn’t have a magnetic discipline to defend it from the high-energy particles whizzing round in area. That radiation can wreak havoc on human well being, and it could significantly compromise the life assist techniques that Mars astronauts will depend upon, as properly.

Primarily based on information from Curiosity’s RAD, researchers are discovering that utilizing pure supplies such because the rock and sediment on Mars may supply some safety from this ever-present area radiation. In a paper printed this summer season in JGR Planets, they detailed how Curiosity remained parked in opposition to a cliff at a location known as “Murray Buttes” from September 9 to 21, 2016.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Digicam, or Mastcam, to seize this picture of an outcrop with finely layered rocks throughout the “Murray Buttes” area on decrease Mount Sharp on September 8, 2016. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Whereas there, RAD measured a 4% lower in total radiation. Extra considerably, the instrument detected a 7.5% lower in impartial particle radiation, together with neutrons that may penetrate rock and are particularly dangerous to human well being. These numbers are statistically excessive sufficient to indicate it was because of Curiosity’s location on the foot of the cliff fairly than regular adjustments within the background radiation.

“We’ve been ready a very long time for the precise situations to get these outcomes, that are important to make sure the accuracy of our laptop fashions,” stated Bent Ehresmann of the Southwest Analysis Institute, lead creator of the current paper. “At Murray Buttes, we lastly had these situations and the information to investigate this impact. We’re now wanting for different areas the place RAD can repeat these sorts of measurements.”

Seasons change even on Mars and NASA’s fleet of explorers are serving to scientists study extra in regards to the results on the Purple Planet. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/College of Arizona/ASU/MSSS

Many of the radiation measured by RAD comes from galactic cosmic rays – particles forged out by exploding stars and despatched pinballing all through the universe. This varieties a carpet of “background radiation” that may pose well being dangers for people.

Way more intense radiation sporadically comes from the Solar within the type of photo voltaic storms that throw large arcs of ionized fuel into interplanetary area.

“These buildings twist in area, generally forming complicated croissant-shaped flux tubes bigger than Earth, driving shock waves that may effectively energize particles,” stated Jingnan Guo, who led a research, printed in September in The Astronomy and Astrophysics Review, analyzing 9 years of RAD information whereas she was at Germany’s Christian Albrecht College.

This pit crater was created by an empty lava tube in Mars’ Arsia Mons area. The picture was captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Aug. 16, 2020. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/College of Arizona

“Cosmic rays, photo voltaic radiation, photo voltaic storms – they’re all elements of area climate, and RAD is successfully an area climate outpost on the floor of Mars,” says Don Hassler of the Southwest Analysis Institute, principal investigator of the RAD instrument.

Photo voltaic storms happen with various frequency based mostly on 11-year cycles, with sure cycles bearing extra frequent and energetic storms than others. Counterintuitively, the intervals when photo voltaic exercise is at its highest often is the most secure time for future astronauts on Mars: The elevated photo voltaic exercise shields the Purple Planet from cosmic rays by as a lot as 30 to 50%, in comparison with intervals when photo voltaic exercise is decrease.

“It’s a trade-off,” Guo stated. “These high-intensity intervals scale back one supply of radiation: the omnipresent, high-energy cosmic ray background radiation round Mars. However on the similar time, astronauts should take care of intermittent, extra intense radiation from photo voltaic storms.”

“The observations from RAD are key to creating the power to foretell and measure area climate, the Solar’s affect on Earth and different photo voltaic system our bodies,” stated Jim Spann, area climate lead for NASA’s Heliophysics Division. “As NASA plans for eventual human journeys to Mars, RAD serves as an outpost and a part of the Heliophysics System Observatory – a fleet of 27 missions that investigates the Solar and its affect on area – whose analysis helps our understanding of and exploration of area.”

The highest of the Radiation Evaluation Detector might be seen on the deck of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

RAD has measured the influence of greater than a dozen photo voltaic storms thus far (5 whereas touring to Mars in 2012), though these previous 9 years have marked an particularly weak interval of photo voltaic exercise.

Scientists are simply now beginning to see exercise decide up because the Solar comes out of its slumber and turns into extra energetic. Actually, RAD noticed proof of the primary X-class flare of the brand new photo voltaic cycle on Oct. 28, 2021. X-class flares are essentially the most intense class of photo voltaic flares, the biggest of which may result in energy outages and communications blackouts on Earth.

“That is an thrilling time for us, as a result of one of many necessary targets of RAD is to characterize the extremes of area climate. Occasions corresponding to photo voltaic flares and storms are one kind of area climate that occurs most steadily throughout elevated photo voltaic exercise – the time we’re approaching now,” Ehresmann stated. Extra observations are wanted to evaluate simply how harmful a very highly effective photo voltaic storm could be to people on the Martian floor.

RAD’s findings will feed right into a a lot bigger physique of information being compiled for future crewed missions. Actually, NASA even outfitted Curiosity’s counterpart, the Perseverance rover, with samples of spacesuit materials to evaluate how they maintain as much as radiation over time.

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