The Mars Curiosity hasn't even made it to Mars yet and it's already made a discovery that vital the future of manned space travel: The exact type of radiation astronauts would likely encounter on their way to the Red Planet. This is so freaking awesome.
Until now, scientists and engineers could only guess about this critical information. The computer calculations required to simulate the interaction between radiation and spacecraft hulls are way too complicated—with high-energy cosmic rays and solar energetic particles penetrating into the craft, interacting and colliding with the molecules in various metal and liquid layers.
It's not a mystery anymore: the Mars Curiosity mission has already collected that information and sent it home. NASA installed a Radiation Assesment Detector (RAD) inside the spacecraft, in a strategic location that simulates where a future astronaut might be positioned. It has been measuring radiation levels for nine months, as the spaceship cruised through millions of miles.
According to Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, "Curiosity is riding to Mars in the belly of the spacecraft, similar to where an astronaut would be. This means the rover absorbs deep-space radiation storms the same way a real astronaut would." And it hasn't been an uneventful ride, says Hassler: "Curiosity has been hit by five major flares and solar particle events in the Earth-Mars expanse. The rover is safe, and it has been beaming back invaluable data."
This vital data would allow engineers to design a manned spacecraft that could actually travel to other planets in the solar system and beyond. It will be made available to the international community soon.
The RAD isn't done working yet: When it arrives on Mars, it will start measuring the radiation that future visitors would have to deal with. According to Hassler, this will be a first too—"no one has ever before measured this kind of radiation from the surface of another planet. We're just getting started." [NASA]
THE MARS CURIOSITY ROVER IS LANDING THIS SUNDAY. I'm at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I will be liveblogging the event life from here.