NASA’s spacecraft begins radiation research on journey to Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover has begun collecting data during its 8-month trip from Earth to Mars, which will help in planning future human missions to the red planet, researchers say.

Loaded with 10 instruments including RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector), Curiosity will traverse the landing site looking for the building blocks of life and characterizing factors that may influence life, such as the harsh radiation environment expected on Mars.

The MSL rover will arrive at Mars in August 2012 to assess the planet’s past and present habitability.

The instrument is measuring the energetic particles inside the spacecraft to characterize the radiation environment an astronaut would experience in future during his mission to the Red Planet in future.

“The first data packets from RAD look great,” said RAD principal investigator Don Hassler, science program director in the Space Studies Department at Southwest Research Institute.

“We are seeing a strong flux in space, even inside the spacecraft, about four times higher doses of radiation than the baseline we measured on the launch pad from the RTG, or radioisotope thermoelectric generator, used to power the rover. It’s very exciting to begin the science mission.”

“RAD was designed for the science mission to characterize radiation levels on the surface of Mars, but an important secondary objective is measuring the radiation on the almost nine-month journey through interplanetary space, to prepare for future human exploration,” Hassler added.

RAD will measure the relevant energetic particle species originating from galactic cosmic rays, the Sun and other sources. Of particular interest are the particles accelerated by coronal mass ejections on the surface of the Sun, which spew fast-moving clouds of radiation across the solar system.

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RAD will collect data nearly continuously during cruise and will downlink data every 24 hours.

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