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Key to conquering the Red Planet: Why is NASA studying solar storms on Mars?

Science and culture

In 2024, the Sun will be at its peak in its current 11-year cycle, providing scientists with a rare opportunity to study the effects of solar storms and radiation on astronauts heading to Mars in the future.

The MAVEN orbiter and the Curiosity rover, NASA's two Mars probes, will work together over the next couple of months to study how X-class solar storms and radiation surges could affect technology and future settlers on Mars. These vehicles are equipped with sensors that detect solar flares and radiation particles at different levels of the atmosphere and on the surface of the planet, collecting data on the radiation situation on Mars in real time.

Unlike Earth, Mars has long lost its magnetic field, making the planet more vulnerable to solar storms. Therefore, among other things, it is important for scientists to understand how dangerous these storms can be for astronauts and what protective measures they need.

“For humans and assets on the Martian surface, we don’t have a solid handle on what the effect is from radiation during solar activity. I’d actually love to see the ‘big one’ at Mars this year — a large event that we can study to understand solar radiation better before astronauts go to Mars,” says Shannon Curry of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. Curry is principal investigator for NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter, which is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The MAVEN device circles in orbit around Mars and observes the flow of solar particles, radiation and other processes in the upper layers of the rarefied atmosphere of the planet. But the fact is that the intensity of radiation on the surface of the planet itself can differ significantly, and therefore, to obtain a more complete picture, the Curiosity rover with its RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) radiation detector was also involved in the study.

“You can have a million particles with low energy or 10 particles with extremely high energy. While MAVEN’s instruments are more sensitive to lower-energy ones, RAD is the only instrument capable of seeing the high-energy ones that make it through the atmosphere to the surface, where astronauts would be,” says RAD’s principal investigator, Don Hassler of the Boulder, Colorado, office of the Southwest Research Institute.

The research also has implications for understanding the climate history of Mars. Global storms that sometimes occur during solar maximum could be a key factor in the disappearance of water from the planet's surface and the change in its climate from warm and wet to cold and dry.

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