Equipped with multiple sensors, NASA’s Curiosity rover is not only exploring Mars, but preparing it for future astronauts.
Could lava tubes, caves or underground habitats provide a safe haven for humans on Mars? Scientists who maintain NASA’s Curiosity rover are investigating this issue using a Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD.
Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a magnetic field to shield it from high-energy particles from space. This radiation can seriously damage human health and undermine the life support systems on which the Martian astronauts depend.
Based on data from RAD Curiosity, the researchers found that the use of natural materials on Mars – rocks and sedimentary rocks – could provide some protection from dangerous cosmic radiation. In an article published in JGR Planets, the scientists detailed how Curiosity remained parked at a cliff at a location called Murray Butts and collected data.
While there, RAD recorded a 4% reduction in total radiation. More importantly, the instrument detected a 7.5% reduction in the emission of neutral particles, including neutrons, which can penetrate rock and are particularly harmful to human health. These numbers are statistically high enough to show that the Curiosity’s position at the base of the cliff is at stake, and not due to the usual changes in background radiation. According to the study, it is now one of the less dangerous places on Mars.
Most of the radiation measured by RAD comes from cosmic rays – elementary particles, photons and atomic nuclei that move at high energies through outer space. They are thrown out by exploding stars and scattered throughout the universe. This forms a carpet of “background radiation” that can be hazardous to human health.