How bad is the radiation on Mars? – Phys.Org

 In Science
Diagram showing the amount of cosmic radiation the surface of Mars is exposed to. Credit: NASA

Human exploration of Mars has been ramping up in the past few decades. In addition to the eight active missions on or around the Red Planet, seven more robotic landers, rovers and orbiters are scheduled to be deployed there by the end of the decade. And by the 2030s and after, several space agencies are planning to mount crewed missions to the surface as well.

On top of that, there are even plenty of volunteers who are prepared to make a one-way journey to Mars, and people advocating that we turn it into a second home. All of these proposals have focused attention on the peculiar hazards that come with sending human beings to Mars. Aside from its cold, dry environment, lack of air, and huge sandstorms, there’s also the matter of its radiation.


Mars has no protective magnetosphere, as Earth does. Scientists believe that at one time, Mars also experienced convection currents in its core, creating a dynamo effect that powered a planetary magnetic field. However, roughly 4.2 billions year ago – either due to a massive impact from a large object, or rapid cooling in its core – this dynamo effect ceased.

As a result, over the course of the next 500 million years, Mars atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind. Between the loss of its magnetic field and its atmosphere, the surface of Mars is exposed to much higher levels of radiation than Earth. And in addition to regular exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind, it receives occasional lethal blasts that occur with strong solar flares.

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Credit: Universe Today


NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft was equipped with a special instrument called the Martian Radiation Experiment (or MARIE), which was designed to measure the radiation environment around Mars. Since Mars has such a thin atmosphere, radiation detected by Mars Odyssey would be roughly the same as on the surface.

Over the course of about 18 months, the Mars Odyssey probe detected ongoing radiation levels which are 2.5 times higher than what astronauts experience on the International Space Station – 22 millirads per day, which works out to 8000 millirads (8 rads) per year. The spacecraft also detected 2 solar proton events, where radiation levels peaked at about 2,000 millirads in a day, and a few other events that got up to about 100 millirads.

For comparison, human beings in developed nations are exposed to (on average) 0.62 rads per year. And while studies have shown that the human body can withstand a dose of up to 200 rads without permanent damage, prolonged exposure to the kinds of levels detected on Mars could lead to all kinds of health problems – like acute radiation sickness, increased risk of cancer, genetic damage, and even death.

And given that exposure to any amount of radiation carries with it some degree of risk, NASA and other space agencies maintain a strict policy of ALARA (As-Low-As-Reasonable-Achievable) when planning missions.

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Possible Solutions:

Human explorers to Mars will definitely need to deal with the increased radiation levels on the surface. What’s more, any attempts to colonize the Red Planet will also require measures to ensure that exposure to radiation is minimized. Already, several solutions – both short term and long- have been proposed to address this problem.

For example, NASA maintains multiple satellites that study the sun, the space environment throughout the solar system, and monitor for galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of solar and cosmic radiation. They’ve also been looking for ways to develop better shielding for astronauts and electronics.

In 2014, NASA launched the Reducing Galactic Cosmic Rays Challenge, an incentive-based competition that awarded a total of $12,000 to ideas on how to reduce astronauts’ exposure to galactic cosmic rays. After the initial challenge in April of 2014, a follow-up challenge took place in July that awarded a prize of $30,000 for ideas involving active and passive protection.

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