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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Curiosity Rover endures unprecedented solar radiation on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Rover recently experienced an intense radiation event on Mars, comparable to receiving 30 chest X-rays.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover recently experienced an intense radiation event on Mars, comparable to receiving 30 chest X-rays. This unprecedented exposure was due to the Sun reaching the peak of its 11-year solar cycle, resulting in heightened solar activity.

Solar Cycle Peak Intensifies Solar Activity

The Sun’s 11-year solar cycle is at its peak, a period when the Sun is more likely to emit bursts of energy and particles into space. This increase in solar activity has manifested in a series of solar storms. On May 20, 2024, the strongest solar flare to date during this cycle struck Mars, followed closely by a coronal mass ejection (CME), a blast of energetic particles from the Sun’s surface.

Read More: Solar flares trigger spectacular light show on Mars

Impact on the Martian Surface

Mars, unlike Earth, lacks a protective magnetic field to shield it from such solar events. Earth’s magnetic field traps energetic particles in the high atmosphere, protecting the surface and its inhabitants. However, Mars lost its magnetic field long ago, leaving its surface directly exposed to these energetic particles.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which has been exploring the Martian surface since 2012, captured the effects of the radiation. The rover’s navigation cameras recorded black-and-white images dancing with “snow” — white streaks and specks caused by charged particles hitting the cameras. This was the highest level of radiation measured by Curiosity since its landing.

Radiation Levels and Human Safety

According to NASA, the radiation dose from the May 20 event was significant. If astronauts had been present next to the Curiosity Rover, they would have received a dose of 8,100 micrograys, equivalent to 30 chest X-rays. Although this amount is not immediately deadly, it is certainly a level of radiation that humans would want to avoid, especially with repeated exposure.

Implications for Human Missions to Mars

NASA has ambitious plans to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s as part of its Artemis program, which includes a preliminary return of humans to the Moon as soon as 2026. The recent solar event emphasizes the challenges of such missions, particularly the need for adequate radiation protection for astronauts.

In response to the radiation threat, NASA suggests that astronauts on Mars should seek shelter during such solar events. Ideal shelters would be natural formations like Martian caves, pits, or lava tubes, which could provide substantial shielding from radiation. “Cliffsides or lava tubes would provide additional shielding for an astronaut from such an event,” stated Don Hassler, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and leader of Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector program. He added that the radiation dose would be even higher in Mars orbit or deep space.

Read More: NASA prepares for solar maximum impact on Mars

The intense radiation experienced by Curiosity is a stark reminder of the harsh conditions on Mars and the challenges that lie ahead for human exploration. While the dream of sending humans to Mars is alive and well, this event highlights the necessity of developing effective radiation protection strategies.