NASA researching radiation protection for future Mars astronauts

Shielding, pharmaceuticals, and faster rockets are all being studied for the protections they provide.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Oct 17, 2017
Committed to sending astronauts to Mars during the 2030s, NASA is actively researching technologies to protect its men and women from harmful ultraviolet radiation during their journey and stay on the Red Planet.

Radiation exposure in space is much more dangerous than it is on Earth, which is protected by its magnetic field. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have some level of protection from staying just within that magnetic field, but they are still exposed to more than ten times as much radiation as people on the surface.

Ionizing radiation in space comes from three sources--solar particle events, galactic cosmic rays, and the Van Allen Belts, which trap radiation from space.

According to NASA Space Radiation Element Scientist Lisa Simonsen, "This ionizing radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA, and alters many cellular processes."

Protection measures as well as those that counter the effects of radiation come in various forms. Spacecraft, habitats, and space suits can be provided with shielding. Engineers are developing shielding technology at NASA's Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) and other experimental facilities.

Devising protective shields is challenging because galactic cosmic rays are powerful enough to get through metal, plastic, cellular material, and water.

Another potential means of protection is pharmaceuticals, which some scientists believe may be more successful in protecting astronauts from galactic cosmic rays.

Methods of predicting space weather and detecting space radiation are also under development. NASA plans to equip its Orion capsule, which could one day transport astronauts to Mars, with a Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor.

The space agency has already sent a Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), which measures and identifies radiation from Mars and from space, to the Red Planet via an un-crewed mission.

RAD is capable of identifying specific protons, neutrons, energetic ions, and gamma rays.

Faster rockets will reduce the amount of time astronauts spend in space, lessening their radiation exposure.

Pat Troutman of NASA's Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead noted the Red Planet is an ideal destination for astronauts because it has subsurface water ice and is known to have once been habitable for life as we know it.

"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," Troutman said.

"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."



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