Martian buttes could help protect astronauts from harmful radiation

One of the key features Earth has that is critical to life as we know it is a protective bubble of atmosphere and a magnetic field that prevents radiation from the solar system from reaching the planet's surface. Without that protective layer, radiation from space might have prevented life from ever forming on our planet. The Mars we know today has no protective magnetosphere or atmosphere, so all of the radiation from the sun and space directly impacts the planet's surface.

While the rovers on the planet's surface and satellites in orbit around Mars are unaffected by the radiation, in a future where humans might explore the surface protecting them from radiation is a significant concern. A new study has been published by researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China that has found some surface features of Mars could offer protection to human explorers.

The study used data gathered from NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity and found that buttes on the surface of Mars could provide human explorers protection from radiation from space. Some of the most important data gathered by MSL Curiosity since it landed on Mars in 2012 comes from the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD).

As far back as 2012, NASA was already looking towards a future human exploration program, and RAD was designed to help prepare for that type of mission. It can also detect what type of challenge radiation might pose to microbial life that may still live on Mars or may have lived there in the past.

One of the areas studied in detail using RAD on the surface of Mars is the Murray Buttes region on lower Mt. Sharp, located in Gale Crater. While Curiosity was studying geology in the region, RAD continued gathering data on radiation and discovered a decrease in surface radiation in the area. When Curiosity was near the butte, the radiation dose recorded was about five percent. The sky visibility map constructed at the time showed 19 percent of the sky was obscured when the buttes were nearby.

Researchers found that being near the butte not only protected from some of the radiation coming directly from space but also protected from radiation that reflects off the ground. The data could help NASA choose a future location for a Martian base for human exploration of the Red Planet.