Sunday, December 18, 2011

Curiosity Radiation Data May Benefit Future Astronauts

Curiosity may only be three weeks into an eight month journey to Mars, but the NASA probe is already collecting and contributing data that may one day help astronauts to safely follow in its path.

Space.com reported that the Curiosity rover is transmitting data on deep space radiation which could help spacecraft developers in designing shielding to keep crews safe on planetary or deep space missions. An onboard Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) is gathering information on high-energy space particles from the sun and other sources. Previous space probes have also compiled data on deep space radiation, but the RAD on Curiosity is contained inside the spacecraft’s protective aero-shell,  giving researchers a better idea what astronauts inside a spacecraft might be exposed to in the future.

Space.com reported:

"RAD is serving as a proxy for an astronaut inside a spacecraft on the way to Mars," Don Hassler, RAD's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement. "The instrument is deep inside the spacecraft, the way an astronaut would be. Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars."

Curiosity, the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, launched on Nov. 26 and is due to touch down at the Red Planet's Gale Crater in early August 2012. The 1-ton rover's chief aim is to gauge whether the Gale Crater area can, or ever could, support microbial life. Most of Curiosity's 10 different science instruments are built to help the rover answer this question.

RAD will also help assess Martian habitability. However, the toaster-size instrument was designed specifically to prepare for future human exploration of Mars. Its measurements will help scientists calculate the radiation dose astronauts would receive on the surface of the Red Planet, researchers said. But future Martian explorers would also be exposed to radiation during their long journey to the Red Planet, so mission scientists have turned RAD on in deep space.

Scientists have measured space radiation before, but previous observations were made with instruments at or near the surface of spacecraft, researchers said. The RAD observations mark the beginning of Curiosity's science work, which will really take off when the rover lands on Mars next August.

"While Curiosity will not look for signs of life on Mars, what it might find could be a game-changer about the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "One thing is certain: The rover's discoveries will provide critical data that will impact human and robotic planning and research for decades."

Currently the rover is more than 31.9 million miles on a journey of 352-million miles, and is following a trajectory that would miss the Red Planet entirely. A series of planned course corrections are slated to begin in January 2012, which will nudge the spacecraft toward the proper alignment for atmospheric entry next summer.

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