Space Weather Could Scrub Manned Mars Mission

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 9, 2005

The dangers of space weather could effectively scrub plans for a manned mission to Mars, a new study reports. Astronauts could be exposed to hazardous levels of radiation—unless forecasters improve their predictions and mission planners adequately protect their crews.

Radiation can be a major hazard for astronauts in space. Enormous disturbances within the sun can send blasts of highly charged particles toward the Earth and beyond.

These storms are massive explosions millions of times stronger than a nuclear bomb, triggered by colliding magnetic fields in the solar atmosphere.

Current manned missions, like those of the space shuttle and International Space Station, take place in low-Earth orbits. Such missions generally enjoy the protection of Earth's magnetic field.

But a Mars mission would send astronauts far beyond Earth's field for months at a time, increasing astronauts' exposure to radiation.

"[Solar storms] are important for space travel because they populate interplanetary space in [all] three dimensions," said Claire Foullon, a physics researcher at Britain's University of Warwick.

Foullon and colleagues N. B. Crosby and D. Heynderickx of the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels warn about these hazards in the current issue of the journal Space Weather.

Uncharted Territory

One of the biggest recorded solar storms occurred in August 1972, between NASA's Apollo 16 and 17 missions to the moon.

Simulations conducted after the missions convinced many scientists that an astronaut in space during the event would have absorbed fatal levels of radiation within 10 hours.

NASA may have benefited from lucky timing in 1972, but the bout of bad space weather served as a warning.

"It raised the question: What if we were on the way to Mars and there was a significant event?" said Daniel Baker, director of University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "Unless some provision was made for shielding or some kind of cocoon, it could be pretty devastating."

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