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Could Mars Astronauts Handle The Radiation?

May 31, 2013
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In a world where tens of thousands of people have signed up for a one-way mission to Mars (and an associated reality TV show), should we worry that, in a single round trip, Mars-bound explorers will experience radiation exposure that comes close to NASA’s lifetime limit for astronauts?

When the roving robot Curiosity rocketed to Mars, it carried a radiation detector. A group of researchers, including scientists from both inside and outside NASA, analyzed its data and revealed their findings in a report published today in Science.

Based on the radiation measured inside the spacecraft during the 253-day journey, which began on November 26, 2011, the researchers found that the dosage for a round trip with current propulsion systems and shielding would be about 0.66 sievert. The report’s lead author, Cary Zeitlin, PhD, put it this way:

In terms of accumulated dose, it’s like getting a whole-body CT scan once every five or six days.

Dr. Zeitlin is a principal scientist at the Southwest Research Institute branch in Boulder, Colorado. He was quoted in a NASA news release.

NASA has established a 3 percent increased risk of fatal cancer as a career limit for its astronauts. Previous studies have found that an accumulated dose of 1 Sv is associated with a 5 percent increase in risk of developing fatal cancer. So two-thirds of a sievert accumulated in one out-and-back trip might put space explorers near NASA’s lifetime limit. That doesn’t count radiation experienced during the stay on Mars itself.

Current spacecraft shielding, according to NASA, protects much more effectively against solar energetic particles from the sun than it does against the other main source of deep-space radiation, galactic cosmic rays from supernova explosions and other high-energy events outside the solar system.

Scientists hope to use the new information to design more effective shielding. That would certainly be a prerequisite before we signed up for any missions to Mars, round-trip or otherwise.

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