Space radiation won't stop NASA's human exploration

October 13, 2017 by Amy Blanchett
Artist depiction of a satellite orbiting Mars. NASA scientists are studying ways to keep future astronauts safe from radiation on an exploration to Mars. Credit: NASA

While it's true that space radiation is one of the biggest challenges for a human journey to Mars, it's also true that NASA is developing technologies and countermeasures to ensure a safe and successful journey to the red planet.

"Some people think that will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that's not the current situation," said, Pat Troutman, NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead. "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."

Space radiation is quite different and more dangerous than radiation on Earth. Even though the International Space Station sits just within Earth's protective magnetic field, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what's naturally occurring on Earth. Outside the magnetic field there are galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), solar particle events (SPEs) and the Van Allen Belts, which contain trapped .

NASA is able to protect the crew from SPEs by advising them to shelter in an area with additional shielding materials. However, GCRs are much more challenging to protect against. These highly energetic particles come from all over the galaxy. They are so energetic they can tear right through metals, plastic, water and cellular material. And as the energetic particles break through, neutrons, protons, and other particles are generated in a cascade of reactions that occur throughout the shielding materials. This secondary radiation can sometimes cause a worse radiation environment for the crew.

Artist depiction of a rover on the surface of Mars. Researchers are developing shielding concepts for transport vehicles, habitats and space suits to protect future astronauts on a journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

"One of the most challenging parts for the human journey to Mars is the risk of and the inflight and long-term health consequences of the exposure," NASA Space Radiation Element Scientist Lisa Simonsen, Ph.D., said. "This ionizing radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA and alters many cellular processes."

NASA is evaluating various materials and concepts to shield the crew from GCRs. Researchers are developing and evaluating shielding concepts for transport vehicles, habitats and space suits with state of the art models and at experimental facilities such as the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL). Scientists are investigating pharmaceutical countermeasures, which may be more effective than shielding to protect crews from GCRs. Teams are integrating radiation-sensing instruments into the Orion spacecraft, like the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are using Personal and operational dosimeters. Engineers are developing enhanced space weather forecasting tools and studying faster rockets to reduce the time spent in space and exposure to radiation.

NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division is also developing various space radiation detection and mitigation technologies. The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) was one of the first instruments sent to Mars specifically to prepare for future human exploration. It measures and identifies radiation on the Martian surface, such as protons, energetic ions, neutrons, and gamma rays. This includes not only direct radiation from , but also secondary radiation produced by the interaction with the Martian atmosphere and ground.

"Mars is the best option we have right now for expanding long-term, human presence," Troutman said. 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."

Explore further: Positive, negative or neutral, it all matters: NASA explains space radiation

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11 comments

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Mark Thomas
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 13, 2017
"Engineers are . . . studying faster rockets to reduce the time spent in space and exposure to radiation."

Developing faster spacecraft will be expensive, but it will solve a wide variety of unrelated problems and provide new capabilities. Because we must rely on planetary alignments with Mars every ~26 months (oppositions), every month shaved off getting bored and irradiated in interplanetary space is an extra month getting exploration and other work done on Mars.

In the long run, even with refueling, it seems unlikely we will be able to explore the entire solar system in person with chemical propulsion. A nuclear propulsion system would be a lot more efficient with double the specific impulse or more. Better still, the reactor could be used to generate a lot of electricity (bimodal) for many uses including electromagnetic shielding against charged particle radiation. If we are ever going to get boots on Pluto, we are going to have to do better than chemical propulsion.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2017
Faster spaceships?

Then why not give your sixteen year old boy the keys to a souped-up sports car, a bottle of bourbon and a hot blonde? And send them out onto a crowded freeway with no speed limit or traffic controls?

Cause as you said "Faster is better!"

Okay, let's say your spaceship is doubled in speed or more of current rocketry with an additional boost using a planetary slingshot fly-bye.

Do you understand, that means anything you run into or runs into you, will hit your ship that much harder? And as fast and furious as you are going? There is a whole lot of crap out there flying even faster. Faster means the faster the machinery wears out and breaks down. The faster biological organisms will age and be poisoned with excessive radiation.

Captain Whizbang's Follies, indeed!

It is interesting to me, that the writers of this article actually mentioned "one" specific means of detection. A dosimeter.

Then got real vague about any means of "mitigation".
michael_frishberg
1 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2017
We don't know enough about Earth's ecology and what keeps us healthy here to go to Mars for any extended visit, even if we can withstand the trip.
Too bad we'll be extinct (by 2100) before we'll colonize Mars.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2017
I'll bet the Martians will celebrate our extinction.
tblakely1357
not rated yet Oct 15, 2017
It seems for many on these boards a human extinction event would be the only thing to bring joy to their sad lives.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2017
"Space radiation won't stop NASA's human exploration"

-Of course not. Thermal radiation or the lack of it hasn't stopped humans from living and exploring here on earth. In addition, pressure or the lack of it haven't stopped humans from exploring the oceans at depth or flying at high altitudes.

We've always adapted and thrived.

Mars is easy - we'll burrow beneath the surface as easily as we build buildings to tower above it here on earth.
rrwillsj
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 16, 2017
Well b1, I don't think "joy" is what I'm feeling as Humanity throws itself over precipice.

Horror, yes.

Anger at the mindlessness of it all.

Disgust at a corrupt leadership that worships greed and ignorance.

Despair at the all too common unwillingness to salvage the tattered remnants of our biosphere.

After all, that would redirect the economy from the clutches of the Wall Street Casino manipulators.

And be a whole lot of hard work. Thereby interrupting mass consumption of beer while vegetating in front of a television.

How dare I express an honest appraisal of the looming catastrophe, interrupting your smug self-satisfaction!
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2017
TGO1, sorry to have to break the news to you.

Ahem, "thermal radiation"? No... This article does not cover the problems with excessive heat build-up inside an inside-out thermos bottle. For which there is not yet any simple method developed to abate. Living inside an asteroid would be the same as stewing in a crock-pot.

This article is about wishful thinking that maybe they can develop some method of preventing strikes by cosmic-rays or gamma rays. Since once they strike your hull? You got a whole lot of other problems with ionizing radiation and neutron cascade events.

Many commentators blithely fob off the painful difficulties and accumulative biological damage from space flight. Safely ensconced in their mommies basements from the responsibility of the harsh decisions that face planners for exploration.

Yeah, people climb Mt. Everest and people die trying on a regular basis. But you don't see anyone living up there or on the ocean bottoms.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2017
dear rrudicrous
TGO1, sorry to have to break the news to you.

Ahem, "thermal radiation"? No... This article does not cover the problems with excessive heat build-up inside an inside-out thermos bottle. For which there is not yet any simple method developed to abate. Living inside an asteroid would be the same as stewing in a crock-pot
-Explain please the difference between dying from prolonged heat exposure and prolonged hard radiation.

Dead is dead yes?

The point being that this inhospitable environment is one more that we will figure out how to conquer. Despite people like yourself with only rrudimentary imaginations and guts.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2017
But you don't see anyone living up there or on the ocean bottoms
Not because we cant but because we dont need to.

Prolonged air
http://www.busine...s-2016-1
https://en.wikipe...e_record

"The semirigid dirigible SSSR-V6 OSOAVIAKhIM was among the largest of these craft, and it set the longest endurance flight at the time of over 130 hours"

"Fitting a hydrogen dirigible with solar panels to power electric motors produces an almost unlimited range."

and

"In 1978, the British Interplanetary Society's Project Daedalus envisioned floating factories in the atmospheres of Jupiter refining helium-3 to produce fuel for an interstellar probe."

Prolonged submarine

"The Astute class... The nuclear submarine that can remain underwater for 25 years..."

Also surface ships, cruise ships, tankers that never dock, etcetc

Also the ISS, "continuously occupied for16 years and 346 days"

etc
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2017
I'm hearing a whole lot of wishful daydreaming based on comicbook fantasies.

I am not seeing any personal effort, self-sacrifice, invention or physical manifestation of those who would be a brave pioneer.

The Cagey Codger urged "Go West, Young Man, Go West!" While the Cagey Codger stayed East. With all the comforts of home and all the concupiscent young maidens!

Everything the previous commentators claim to want to accomplish? Are meaningless noise...

Until, first and foremost, we resolve the problems of protecting biological organisms beyond the Van Allen Belts. And yeah, that includes females and both fetus and children in an inimical environment.

Otherwise, it is all a pointless exercise in egotism. In that case, try a little bit of honesty. And just turn the whole effort of space pioneering over to the robots.

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