Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Curiosity and the Solar Storm

One of the major problems with sending humans to space on long trips will be how much radiation they may receive.  The more we can learn about this hazard the better.  The Mars Rover, Curiosity, is on its way to Mars and will be measuring what radiation might hit it.
- LRK -
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."
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 to Science@NASA for the second installment of this story:Curiosity and the Habitability Mars.
Author:Dr. Tony Phillips| Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
Footnote:1Posner notes that only the most powerful CMEs will still be accelerating particles when they are as far from sun as Curiosity will be.  For a typical CME, the main thing RAD will detect is the modulation of galactic cosmic rays passing through the CME.  Cosmic ray modulation could reveal new information about the interior structure of these storm clouds.
Curiosity Takes Off -- Science@NASA
Credits: The Mars Science Lab mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida managed the launch. NASA's Space Network provided space communication services for the launch vehicle. NASA's Deep Space Network will provide spacecraft acquisition and mission communication.
Whatever vehicle takes humans to space, finding a way to protect them from harmful radiations is going to be a problem that needs to be solved.
- LRK -

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The goal of NASA's Space Radiation Program (SRP) is to enable humans to explore space without exceeding an acceptable level of risk from exposure to space radiation.
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