While space radiation is one of the biggest challenges that astronauts have to conquer in their journey to Mars, NASA is quite optimistic about finding a solution that would protect the humans travelling to the Red Planet. NASA is already developing technologies and countermeasures to ensure the safety and security of the astronauts. Space radiation cannot dampen the spirits of the agency, believe NASA experts.
"Some people think that radiation will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that's not the current situation. 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 Pat Troutman, NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead, in a NASA statement.
Space radiation is quite different and also more perilous than that of the Earth. Although the International Space Station is located just within the Earth's protective magnetic field, the astronauts there obtain ten times more radiation than what naturally comes to the Earth. Outside of this protective magnetic field, space has in store the galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), solar particle events (SPEs) and the Van Allen Belts, which contain trapped space radiation.
While NASA is capable of protecting its crew from the SPEs by advising them to stay in an area that has additional shielding materials, GCRs are much more difficult to combat. These highly energetic particles, which come from all over the galaxy, are capable of tearing right through metals, plastic, water and also cellular materials.
"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 NASA Space Radiation Element Scientist Lisa Simonsen, Ph.D. in the report. "This ionizing radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA and alters many cellular processes."
Researchers are evaluating several measures, materials and concepts to protect the astronauts against the galactic cosmic rays. At its experimental facilities, NASA scientists are developing shielding concepts for the transport vehicles, habitat and space suits with state of the art models. Other than that they are also testing pharmaceutical countermeasures, which according to the experts, could be more effective than shielding.
As the report states, several teams at NASA are integrating radiation sensing tools, such as the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor, into the Orion spacecraft.
Add to that, engineers are developing enhanced space weather forecasting instruments and also testing the faster rockets, which would reduce the time spent in space and astronauts' exposure to radiation. NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division is also working on various space radiation detection and mitigation technologies.
"Mars is the best option we have right now for expanding long-term, human presence. We've 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.