Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Solar storm on Mars: NASA Curiosity Rover hit by radiation equivalent to 30 chest X-rays, still manages to record effect

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With the sun at its 11-year solar cycle peak, NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars just got hit with a blast of radiation equivalent to that of 30 chest X-rays.

With the solar cycle at peak, the sun is more likely to emit bursts of energy and particles into space.

A recent solar storm stoked glorious aurora on Earth, after which on May 20, the strongest solar flare from the sun hit the Red Planet.

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Soon after, another solar explosion, coronal mass ejection (a blast of energetic particles from the sun’s surface) reached Mars.

These energetic particles from the sun’s surface hit the Martian surface, and NASA’s Curiosity Rover captured the effect.

The US space agency in a statement said on May 20, so much energy from the storm struck the Curiosity Rover’s surface that its black-and-white images danced with ‘snow’ — white streaks and specks caused by charged particles hitting the cameras.

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Unlike the Earth whose magnetic field traps energetic particles in the high atmosphere, Mars lost its protective magnetic field long ago, thereby impacting the Martian ground.

The magnetic field helps shield the surface, and us, from radiations.

Ever since the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars on 2012, the May 20 radiation was the highest ever measured.

“If astronauts had been standing next to NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at the time, they would have received a radiation dose of 8,100 micro grays — equivalent to 30 chest X-rays,” NASA said.

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That’s not in itself a “deadly” amount, it explained, but “certainly something humans would not want to be exposed to, nor ever repeatedly exposed to”.

Humans to Mars

NASA has been planning to send astronauts to Mars as early as the 2030s under its Artemis program. Under the program, humans will first return to the moon as soon as 2026.

The solar storm has created a new stress for NASA because of this is to hit the unprotected planet, the space agency would need its astronauts to seek shelter, ideally underground in a Martian cave, pit, or lava tube.

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Don Hassler, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute who leads Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector program, in a statement said, “Cliffsides or lava tubes would provide additional shielding for an astronaut from such an event.”

“In Mars orbit or deep space, the dose rate would be significantly more,” he added.


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Published: 11 Jun 2024, 06:27 PM IST

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