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Overcoming the hurdle of cosmic radiation to safely inhabit Mars

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Brett M.
Brett M. Dec 30, 2020
It would be an amazing feat for the human race to inhabit Mars given the substantial risks and challenges associated with the process. One important hurdle that must be overcome to safely settle humans on Mars is the frequent exposure to cosmic radiation. This short video provides an interesting overview of the radiation that would impact both traveling to and living on Mars.

Radiation on Mars

The most dangerous forms of radiation that would be experienced on Mars come in the form of galactic cosmic rays and solar energy particles , with the former being the most experienced on the planet's surface. Between the years 2012-2013, the recorded radiation experienced on the surface of Mars was 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day, which is quite substantial when compared to Earth where recordings have indicated a range of 1.25-12.5 mSv per year depending on geographic location.

One Earth year would get you one-half of an orbit around the sun when standing on Mars (1 Mars year = ~686 Earth days) , which means that 365 Earth days would amount to roughly 459 mSv if the reading from 2012-2013 was a standardized amount of radiation. Importantly, this number does not include the trip to Mars which can take roughly 180 days or random solar particle events that can dramatically increase radiation exposure. Based on these measurements, the radiation experienced by a human during a single one-way trip to the red planet including 1 Earth year on the planet's surface would amount to roughly 579 mSv (likely a minimum).

What is a "safe" amount of radiation?

NASA-imposed career limits of radiation exposure are intended to maintain a risk of exposure-induced death (REID) at or below 3% , and takes into account the amount of mSv per age and sex that may contribute to the rate of cancer-related death which can result from increased exposure to radiation. Based on these limits, 579 mSv is within the permitted amount of mSv for a 30-year male (< ~600 mSv), but not a 30- or 35-year old female (~450-500 mSv) . Moreover, 579 mSv would exceed the yearly limit of exposure that poses a risk for cardiac and cerebral problems, and 5 years on the red planet would exceed the career limit of exposure recommended to mitigate health risks associated with the heart, blood-forming organs, and the brain .

How can we overcome the substantial impact of cosmic radiation on our mission to Mars?

Considering the idea that living on Mars would obviously extend for longer than 1 Earth year (and would likely involve a human lifetime), this clearly highlights an issue that must be addressed to safely live and reproduce on the planet's surface if we were to colonize it. Fortunately, there are some technological advances that have been introduced to overcome these hurdles.

For instance, the electromagnetic field (EMF) produced by Earth's core protects inhabitants of our world from the solar winds emitted by coronal mass ejections produced by the sun as well as the galactic cosmic radiation racing through the vacuum of space. NASA has proposed a project that would launch a massive electromagnetic shield over Mars thereby providing a simulated EMF for the planet . NASA believes that this will stimulate habitable conditions on the Martian surface, and permit colonizing activities to progress. Other attempts involve the use of hydrogen-, boron-, and nitrogen-rich materials, which have been shown to block radioactive particles and may provide useful if incorporated into spacecraft walls or space suits. Interestingly, it has been proposed that Martian regolith can provide a protective layer against radiation on the surface of Mars , and could be achieved by sending fleets of 3D printing AI to the red planet to prepare infrastructures prior to the arrival of humans, as summarized in this video.

Overall, the mission to Mars has been a challenging project for humankind to date, but there seem to be reasonable approaches to overcome these challenges to colonize this mysterious planet. It will be interesting to see how these new technologies are incorporated and improved in the coming years to facilitate our journey to the outer parts of our solar system and beyond.

[1]Howell, E. (December 10, 2013). How Much Radiation Would You Get During A Mars Mission? Universe Today. Retrieved from: https://www.universetoday.com/107093/how-much-radiation-would-you-get-during-a-mars-mission/#:~:text=Radiation%20on%20Mars%20comes%20from%20two%20sources%3A%20galactic,affecting%20the%20expected%20amount%20of%20particles%20on%20Mars.

[2]Williams, M. (May 28, 2016). The Orbit of Mars. How Long is a Year on Mars?. Universe Today. Retrieved from: https://www.universetoday.com/14718/how-long-is-a-year-on-mars/

[3]Cucinotta, F. A., Hu, S., Schwadron, N. A., Kozarev, K., Townsend, L. W., and Kim, M.‐H. Y. (2010), Space radiation risk limits and Earth‐Moon‐Mars environmental models, Space Weather, 8, S00E09, doi:10.1029/2010SW000572.

[4]Veyajan, VVR (May 1, 2017). What creates Earth’s magnetic field? The Science of Everything: COSMOS. Retrieved from: https://cosmosmagazine.com/geoscience/what-creates-earth-s-magnetic-field/

[5]Dockrill, P. (March 6, 2017). NASA Wants to Launch a Giant Magnetic Field to Make Mars Habitable. Science Alert. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencealert.com/nasa-wants-to-launch-a-giant-magnetic-shield-to-make-mars-habitable

[6]Thibeault, S. (February 16, 2014). Radiation Shielding Materials Containing Hydrogen, Boron, and Nitrogen: Systematic Computational and Experimental Study. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Retrieved from: https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/2011_radiation_shielding/

[7]Martian regolith as space radiation shielding L. C. Simonsen, J. E. Nealy, L. W. Townsend, and J. W. Wilson Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 1991 28:1, 7-8

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Creative contributions

Using lead glass

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Povilas S
Povilas S Jan 16, 2021
Lead glass is a type of glass containing high levels (up to 40%) of lead oxide. Because of high lead content, it provides reliable protection against gamma rays and x-rays while at the same time giving the benefit of transparency. It is used in various fields (medical, scientific, industrial) that are dealing with radiation , . Incorporating lead glass into Martian architecture would help increase light levels in living facilities.

Underground facilities could have large skylights to maximize natural lighting while at the same time using soil as an additional radiation shield. Alternatively, facilities could be built on the surface and be either made entirely of lead glass or have large lead glass windows and skylights while the rest of their surface area would be built from other radiation-shielding materials. The level of radiation protection can be increased by making the glass thicker.

[1]https://www.radiationproducts.com/lead-lined-glass

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_glass

Predominantly underground architecture

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Povilas S
Povilas S Jan 16, 2021
In an online podcast dealing with Mars colonization, Dr. Robert Zubrin, the founder of Mars Society, expressed his vision of the first human settlements on Mars being predominantly underground. A thick layer of Martian soil would be a good natural shield from relatively high levels of planet's radiation.

However, even though this is a rather simple and practical solution, it doesn't sound very appealing because natural light levels on Mars are already dimmer than on Earth, so living underground would make the situation even more depressive (both metaphorically and literally).


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General comments

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Dragan Otasevic
Dragan Otasevic2 months ago
Can't wait to see what the Perserverence rover discovers https://youtu.be/yqqaW8DCc-I