Curiosity and the solar storm

Dec 15, 2011 by Dr. Tony Phillips
The two Mars launches of Nov. 26, 2011. On the left, a solar explosion hurls a CME toward the Red Planet (Credit: SOHO). On the right, the Mars Science Lab or "Curiosity" lifts off from Cape Canaveral. (Credit: Howard Eskildsen of Titusville, FL)

On Nov. 26th, Curiosity blasted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Riding a plume of fire through the blue Florida sky, the car-sized rover began a nine month journey to search for signs of life Mars.

Meanwhile, 93 million miles away, a second lesser-noticed Mars was underway. Around the time that Curiosity’s rocket was breaking the bonds of Earth, a filament of magnetism erupted from the sun, hurling a billion-ton cloud of plasma (a “CME”) toward the Red Planet.

There was no danger of a collision—Mars rover vs. solar storm. Racing forward at 2 million mph, the plasma cloud outpaced Curiosity’s rocket by a wide margin.

Next time could be different, however. With solar activity on the upswing (Solar Max is expected in 2012-2013) it’s only a matter of time before a CME engulfs the Mars-bound rover.

That suits some researchers just fine. As Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Boulder, Colorado, explains, “We look forward to such encounters because Curiosity is equipped to study solar storms."

Hassler is the principal investigator for Curiosity's Radiation Assessment Detector--"RAD" for short. The instrument, developed at SWRI and Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, counts cosmic rays, neutrons, protons and other particles over a wide range of energies. Tucked into the left front corner of the rover, RAD is about the size of a coffee can and weighs only three pounds, but has capabilities of Earth-bound instruments nearly 10 times its size.

Curiosity and the solar storm
A photo of the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) in the laboratory

Encounters with CMEs pose little danger to Curiosity. By the time a CME reaches the Earth-Mars expanse, it is spread so thin that it cannot truly buffet the spacecraft. Nevertheless, RAD can sense what happens as the CME passes by.

"RAD will be able to detect accelerated by shock waves in some CMEs1," says Arik Posner of NASA’s Heliophysics Division in Washington DC. "This could give us new insights into the inner physics of these giant clouds."

There’s more to this, however, than pure heliophysics. Future human astronauts will directly benefit from RAD’s measurements during the cruise phase.

"Curiosity is nestled inside its spacecraft, just like a real astronaut would be," notes Frank Cucinotta, Chief Scientist for NASA’s Space Radiation Program at the Johnson Space Center. "RAD will give us an idea of the kind of radiation a human can expect to absorb during a similar trip to Mars."

Of particular interest are secondary particles. Galactic cosmic rays and solar energetic particles hit the walls of the spacecraft, creating an inward spray of even more biologically dangerous neutrons and atomic nuclei. RAD will analyze the spray from the only realistic place to make such measurements—inside the spaceship.

In this way, “RAD is a bridge between the science and exploration sides of NASA,” says Hassler. “The two objectives are equally exciting.”

RAD was activated on Dec. 6th. Of the rover's ten science instruments, it will be the only one active during the cruise to Mars. Daily transmissions to Earth will let Hassler and colleagues monitor what's going on "out there."

"We're very excited about the possibility of more solar storms," he adds.

As important as RAD’s cruise phase measurements are, the instrument’s primary mission doesn’t really begin until it lands on the Red Planet.

Mars has a very thin atmosphere and no global magnetic field to protect it from space radiation. Energetic particles reaching ground level might be dangerous to life--both future human astronauts and extant Martian microbes. RAD will find out how much shielding human explorers need on the surface of Mars. RAD will also help researchers estimate how far below ground a microbe might have to go to reach a radiation “safe zone.”

Solar storms are just for starters. Stay tuned for the second installment of this story: and the Habitability Mars.

Explore further: Successful engine test enables SpaceX Falcon 9 soar to space station in Jan. 2015

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA Mars-bound rover begins research in space

Dec 14, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's car-sized Curiosity rover has begun monitoring space radiation during its 8-month trip from Earth to Mars. The research will aid in planning for future human missions to the Red Planet.

Next Mars rover nears completion

Apr 07, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Assembly and testing of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is far enough along that the mission's rover, Curiosity, looks very much as it will when it is investigating Mars.

Recommended for you

The top 101 astronomical events to watch for in 2015

Dec 24, 2014

Now in its seventh year of compilation and the second year running on Universe Today, we're proud to feature our list of astronomical happenings for the coming year. Print it, bookmark it, hang it on your ...

NASA image: Frosty slopes on Mars

Dec 24, 2014

This image of an area on the surface of Mars, approximately 1.5 by 3 kilometers in size, shows frosted gullies on a south-facing slope within a crater.

Opportunity rover struggles with flash memory problems

Dec 24, 2014

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover, also known as "Oppy", is continuing its traverse southward on the western rim of Endeavour Crater despite computer resets and "amnesia" that have occurred after reformatting ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

omatumr
Dec 15, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
FrankHerbert
1 / 5 (52) Dec 15, 2011
^report abuse

"The Paranoid Style in American Politics"
http://karws.gso....yle.html

"A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed."

"THE DOUBLE SUFFERER
...
We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."
omatumr
1 / 5 (6) Dec 15, 2011
I encourage everyone to remain calm as world order and the AGW scare collapse, trusting that the Universe is in good hands:

http://dl.dropbox..._Not.pdf

Remember Gandhi defeated the British Empire, . . .

a.) Not by having more funds or weapons, but
b.) By just doing what is right, and
c.) Turning the results over to Fate!

Today world leaders and leaders of the scientific community are as scared as leaders of the British Empire were when they met an opponent that would not accept their arrogant, false view of reality.

http://dl.dropbox...asks.pdf

That is where we are today with the AGW story.

If the Sun emits CMEs or belches,
As pulsars emit gamma bursts,
We are all charcoal anyway!

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
http://myprofile....anuelo09

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.