Rover radiation data poses manned Mars mission dilemma

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Nasa’s Curiosity rover has confirmed what everyone has long suspected – that astronauts on a Mars mission would get a big dose of damaging radiation. The robot counted the number of high-energy space particles striking it on its eight-month journey to the planet.

Based on this data, scientists say a human travelling to and from Mars could well be exposed to a radiation dose that breached current safety limits. This calculation does not even include time spent on the planet’s surface.

When the time devoted to exploring the world is taken into account, the dose rises further still. This would increase the chances of developing a fatal cancer beyond what is presently deemed acceptable for a career astronaut.

Cary Zeitlin from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and colleagues report the Curiosity findings in the latest edition of Science magazine.

They say engineers will have to give careful consideration to the type of shielding that is built into a Mars-bound crew ship. However, they concede that for some of the most damaging radiation particles, there may be little that can be done to shelter the crew other than to get them to Mars and the partial protection of its thin atmosphere and rocky mass as quickly as possible.

At the moment, given existing chemical propulsion technology, Mars transits take months. “The situation would be greatly improved if we could only get there quite a bit faster,” Dr Zeitlin told BBC News.

“It is not just the dose rate that is the problem; it is the number of days that one accumulates that dose that drives the total towards or beyond the career limits. Improved propulsion would really be the ticket if someone could make that work.”

New types of propulsion, such as plasma and nuclear thermal rockets, are in development. These could bring the journey time down to a number of weeks. Curiosity travelled to Mars inside a capsule similar in size to the one now being developed to take astronauts beyond the space station to destinations such as asteroids and even Mars.

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