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NASA: radiation levels on Mars 'manageable'

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New findings from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover concerning the levels of Martian radiation have just been published here on Earth. The findings: radiation levels as experienced by the rover are 'manageable' for human explorers.

So, how does this bode for manned Mars exploration?

According to instruments on Curiosity designed to measure radiation levels, in its 8 month trip to Mars and during its first 3 months on the Red Planet, Curiosity experienced a total dosage of 1.01 sieverts of radiation. For comparison, the European Space Agency (ESA) limits its astronauts to 1 career sievert of radiation exposure, which is associated with a 5% increase in risk for developing cancer. NASA has stricter standards, limiting astronauts to a radiation dosage that equates to a 3% increase in cancer risk.

Writing in the Journal Science, Don Hassler, Curiosity's Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) principal investigator, said that "it's [the radiation amount on Mars] certainly a manageable number.”

Another interesting finding: the radiation dosage on the trip to Mars is about 3 times higher than it actually is on the Red Planet. Additionally, radiation on Mars itself can vary. Right now, the Sun is near its peak in activity, which means more radiation being shot out into space, and to Mars. As a last point that could prove keyto planning a manned mission: Curiosity's findings indicate that by simply drilling 1 meter down into the Martian surface, the radiation levels should pose no threat to microbial (and possibly human) life.

For NASA, Curiosity represents the next generation of Mars rovers, serving as a successor to Spirit and Opportunity (landed 2004), which served as successors to Sojourner(landed 1997). Curiosity is due to land in August, 2012, during which it will attempt to discover whether Mars ever was home to/was once suitable for life. The 8 main objectives of the mission are as follows:

1. Determine the nature/amount of organic compounds
2. Identify the building blocks of life as we know it
3. Look for traces of past life
4. Investigate Martian geology
5. Discover how rocks/soils were formed
6. Assess atmospheric evolution
7. Try and understand the current water cycle
8. Identify the surface radiation from the Sun

In terms of what the rover has to offer, it is truly ambitious.

To start with, the rover will be powered nuclear, rather than solar energy like its predecessors, which means that Curiosity will be able to operate year-round. The rover will carry 3 cameras, a laser several spectrometers, a sampling tool, a radiation detector, atmospheric assessment tools, water detector, as well as navigation cameras designed to help the rover act autonomously by helping it avoid hazards on the Martian surface.

For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more tan the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship missionfor the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA's future plans thanks to extensive budget cutsHowever, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which has seen its planetary science budget drastically cut in recent years.

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