According to the 2010 US National Space Policy, NASA has to put astronauts on Mars by the early 2030s. There are significant challenges associated with doing so, one of which is safeguarding humans against the effects of space radiations. The MSL mission is currently providing invaluable assistance.
The spacecraft, composed of a two-piece aeroshell, the Sky Crane landing system and the rover Curiosity, has been traveling towards the Red Planet for more than 8 months, and is currently getting ready for an August 6 landing.
While en route, the spacecraft was impacted by no less than five solar flares, which drenched it in radiations. These events were of extreme use for NASA
engineers, who are currently trying to figure out how to protect a manned capsule as it heads for Mars.
The American space agency will use the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to launch the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on its months-long journey to the Red Planet. Protecting the astronauts from the harmful effects of space radiations is one of the last remaining challenges to such a mission.
MSL is providing invaluable assistance for Orion mission planners through the data collected by the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument installed on the aeroshell. The device constantly collects information about the amount of radiations surrounding the spacecraft.
What readings from the instrument suggest is that Curiosity was left unaffected by all the five solar flares it flew through. This raises hope that a similar lack of exposure to radiations will be noted when humans fly to the Red Planet as well.
“Curiosity has been hit by five major flares and solar particle events in the Earth-Mars expanse. The rover is safe, and it has been beaming back invaluable data,” explains scientist Don Hassler, who is based at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), in Boulder, Colorado.
“Curiosity is riding to Mars in the belly of the spacecraft, similar to where an astronaut would be. This means the rover absorbs deep-space radiation storms the same way a real astronaut would,” he adds.
Hassler also holds an appointment as the principal investigator for the RAD instrument. He explains that MSL is providing NASA with the opportunity to conduct an experiment “in the field,” something that is very difficult to do when it comes to constructing spacecraft.
As Curiosity lands, RAD will be turned off, but experts plan to restart it once the rover gets settled in. The instrument will measure the radiation that future astronauts will be subjected to as they reach Mars.
“No one has ever before measured this kind of radiation from the surface of another planet. We’re just getting started,” Hassler concludes.