It’s amazing that the human race is now close to sending a person to another planet for the first time in the history of civilization – NASA hopes to put a man on Mars by 2030, or at least not too long after. But why will it take 20 years? Well, there are loads of problems scientists have to overcome like the psychological impacts of a 2-3 year trip, the problem of having enough food and water, and finding a fuel that would be powerful enough to power a heavy craft to Mars.
But there’s something perhaps even more important that people often overlook, and it’s something that could affect long-term missions to the Moon too – radiation from the Sun. It’s proving to be a huge stumbling block.
Our Sun constantly bombards our planet – and everywhere else in the Solar System – with a stream of assorted particles, many of which would be harmful to humans if we were exposed to them. In fact, these ‘cosmic rays’, as they’re sometimes also known, were the main thing that prevented life on Earth originating until a billion or so years after its creation. Only when a few resistant bacteria (and lots of volcanoes) started producing gases to produce an atmosphere could more advanced life develop.
Any mission to space obviously involves going outside our atmosphere, which means leaving the shield that protects us from solar radiation. Even with complex spacesuits, modern astronauts frequently see white flashes of light as solar particles interact with their eyes.
But if astronauts can cope with solar radiation now (for example on Shuttle missions and at the ISS), why wouldn’t they be able to cope on a Moon base or on Mars?
The problem is that unlike on the Shuttle or ISS, astronauts walking around on the Moon or Mars would have only their spacesuits to protect them. On a Moon base the astronauts would be exposed to radiation for days until they finished building the base, and on Mars the astronauts would want to spend several weeks exploring to make the 2-3 year journey worthwhile. All that radiation would build up, and could trigger things like cancer and tumors.
What’s the solution? It’s basically just a matter of trying to research better and better lightweight protection that can be used for spacesuits – but that could take many years yet. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long.