As the world once again sets its sights on the moon, it can seem like continuing on to Mars is the next logical step. Some space travel fans like Elon Musk have talked excitedly about seeding Maritan colonies within the next decade, but a new study from UCLA could put a damper on such plans. According to the latest data, humans could only safely spend four years on Mars before receiving an unsafe dose of radiation.
The researchers set out to answer two key questions for a hypothetical crewed Mars mission: Is it possible to safely send astronauts to Mars? And could the timing of a mission reduce the amount of radiation astronauts encounter? The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” but there are caveats.
While it’s possible for astronauts to live and work safely on Mars, this is not a long-term proposition. The team calculated that it is possible to shield a spacecraft sufficiently to protect the crew on the way to and from Mars, but that can only do so much. Cosmic radiation on the red planet is a real threat. Unlike Earth, Mars lacks a magnetic field to deflect these deadly rays. Even with shielding and medical monitoring, the clock is ticking from the moment the crew sets foot on Mars.
The four-year cutoff takes into account the most advantageous launch timing. During periods of enhanced solar activity, the more dangerous radiation from outside our solar system is partially deflected. Beginning a mission six to 12 months after the peak of the sun’s cycle should allow the crew to avoid more of the damaging galactic cosmic rays.
The good news is that a Mars mission could easily take less than four years — the crew wouldn’t even have to rush. It takes about nine months to reach Mars if launching during the planet’s closest approach to Earth. They could spend several months exploring Mars, probably doing more science than even the best robots could do in a decade, and then it’s just another nine-month trip home during the next planetary alignment. In all, the mission could last less than two years.
That’s all well and good for the short-term, but the paper doesn’t explore factors like microgravity, which can have serious impacts on human health. Likewise, the fine dust covering most of the planet could be a respiratory hazard. NASA hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars in 10-12 years, and that does seem feasible. We’ll need new technology to keep people safe during the journey, but that’s only going to work if everyone comes back to Earth. Any plans to colonize the red planet are looking shaky at best.
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