Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Preparing for future human exploration, RAD measures radiation on journey to Mars

December 14, 2011
Southwest Research Institute
The Radiation Assessment Detector, the first instrument on NASA's next rover mission to Mars to begin science operations, was powered up and began collecting data Dec. 6, almost 2 weeks ahead of schedule. RAD is the only instrument scheduled to collect science data on the journey to Mars. The instrument is measuring the energetic particles inside the spacecraft to characterize the radiation environment an astronaut would experience on a future human mission to the Red Planet.

On Nov. 26, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft to deliver a car-sized rover to the surface of the Red Planet in August 2012. The MSL mission is to assess past and present habitability of Mars. Positioned in the near the center of the rover, the Southwest Research Institute-led Radiation Assessment Detector is about the size of a coffee can and will characterize a key influence on life, the planet’s radiation environment.
Credit: Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

NASA will launch the Mars Science Laboratory on Nov. 26, 2011, to assess the past and present habitability of the Red Planet's surface. The mission will land Curiosity, a rover equipped with 10 instruments designed to search for evidence of elements needed to support life -- namely, water and carbon-based materials -- and to characterize life-limiting factors, such as the planet's radiation environment.

Related Articles

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) led the development of the Radiation Assessment Detector, which will measure, for the first time, the radiation environment on the surface of Mars, measuring all the relevant energetic particle species originating from galactic cosmic rays, the Sun and other sources. Positioned in the left front corner of the rover, RAD is about the size of a coffee can and weighs about three pounds, but has capabilities of an Earth-bound instrument nearly 10 times its size. Its wide-angle telescope detects charged particles arriving from space, and the instrument also measures neutrons and gamma rays coming from Mars' atmosphere above, or the surface material below, the rover.

"RAD is a bridge between the science and exploration sides of NASA," says physicist Don Hassler, RAD principal investigator and science program director at SwRI's Planetary Science Office in Boulder, Colo. "The two objectives are equally exciting. RAD's measurements will help the MSL science team assess whether the site has conditions favorable for life or preserving evidence of life, as well as how deep below the surface we must drill to find potential evidence of life.

"The other primary objective of RAD is to help NASA plan for future human missions to Mars by helping to determine the amount of radiation shielding required to keep astronauts safe on the surface of the planet, as well as during the long journey to get there and back," continued Hassler. "To achieve these objectives, RAD will also characterize the radiation environment during the trip from Earth to Mars, in addition to Mars' surface throughout the rover mission. Understanding radiation levels in interplanetary space is also important to the design of future human missions to Mars, so RAD will be one of the first instruments on Curiosity to send scientific data back to Earth."

Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere shield our planet from most hazardous galactic cosmic rays and "solar particle events." Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere -- about one percent of Earth's -- and lacks a global magnetic field, allowing more radiation to reach its surface and pose a hazard to life.

RAD will monitor galactic cosmic rays, streams of charged particles coming from supernova remnants and other sources outside our solar system. The instrument will also characterize the electrons, protons and heavier ions sporadically released by solar particle events such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections on the Sun.

While NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter evaluated the radiation above Mars' atmosphere, the radiation environment on its surface has never been characterized. Current estimates of surface radiation rely on modeling of how the Mars' atmosphere probably affects energetic particles, but these models are unproven. For example, a single energetic particle hitting the top of the atmosphere can break up into a cascade of lower-energy particles that might be more damaging than the single high-energy particle itself.

Radiation levels probably make the surface of modern Mars inhospitable for microbial life and would contribute to the breakdown of any near-surface organic compounds. RAD measurements will help determine the depth a possible future robot on a life-detection mission might need to dig or drill to reach a microbial safe zone. Researchers will combine RAD's measurements with estimates of how the activity of the Sun and the atmosphere of Mars have changed in the past several billion years to provide insight into whether the surface may have been habitable in the past.

Because radiation levels in interplanetary space vary on many time scales, from much longer than a year to shorter than an hour, RAD will record measurements for 15 minutes of every hour throughout the prime mission, on steady watch to catch any rare but vitally important solar particle events. Because the first science data from the mission will be collected by RAD on the journey from Earth to Mars, scientists will correlate these en-route measurements with other spacecraft that monitor solar particle events and galactic cosmic rays in Earth's neighborhood to ultimately yield data about the radiation environment farther from Earth.

Curiosity will arrive at Mars about nine months after launch and collect data for one Mars year, or two Earth years; the mission could be extended to collect data for an entire solar cycle.

SwRI, together with Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, built RAD with funding from the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Germany's national aerospace research center: Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. United Launch Alliance, Denver, is supplying the launch vehicle and launch services. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Southwest Research Institute. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Cite This Page:

Southwest Research Institute. "Preparing for future human exploration, RAD measures radiation on journey to Mars." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 December 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111213190202.htm>.
Southwest Research Institute. (2011, December 14). Preparing for future human exploration, RAD measures radiation on journey to Mars. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 29, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111213190202.htm
Southwest Research Institute. "Preparing for future human exploration, RAD measures radiation on journey to Mars." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111213190202.htm (accessed January 29, 2015).

Share This

More From ScienceDaily

More Space & Time News

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Asteroid's Moon Spotted During Earth Flyby

Asteroid's Moon Spotted During Earth Flyby

Rumble (Jan. 27, 2015) — Scientists working with NASA&apos;s Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California discovered an unexpected moon while observing asteroid 2004 BL86 during its recent flyby past Earth. Credit to &apos;NASA JPL&apos;. Video provided by Rumble
Powered by NewsLook.com
Water Fleas Prepare for Space Voyage

Water Fleas Prepare for Space Voyage

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Jan. 26, 2015) — Scientists are preparing a group of water fleas for a unique voyage into space. The aquatic crustaceans, known as Daphnia, can be used as a miniature model for biomedical research, and their reproductive and swimming behaviour will be tested for signs of stress while on board the International Space Station. Jim Drury went to meet the team. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Mars Rover Opportunity Celebrates 11-Year Anniversary

Mars Rover Opportunity Celebrates 11-Year Anniversary

Rumble (Jan. 26, 2015) — Eleven years ago NASA&apos;s Opportunity rover touched down on Mars for what was only supposed to be a 90-day mission. Since then it has traveled 25.9 miles (41.7 kilometers), further than any other off-Earth surface vehicle has ever driven. Credit to &apos;NASA&apos;. Video provided by Rumble
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA's On Course To Take Pluto's Best Photo Ever

NASA's On Course To Take Pluto's Best Photo Ever

Newsy (Jan. 25, 2015) — NASA&apos;s New Horizons probe is en route to snap a picture of Pluto this summer, but making sure it doesn&apos;t miss its one chance to do so starts now. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.


Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News


Free Subscriptions

Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile

Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?

Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins