Outside Earth’s protective magnetic field and atmosphere, the ionizing radiation in space will pose a serious risk to astronauts as they travel to Mars. High-energy galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) which are remnants from supernovas and solar storms like solar particle events (SPEs) and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the sun can cause harm to the body and spacecraft. These are all components of space weather.
When astronauts travel in space they can’t see or even feel radiation. However, NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) is studying the effects radiation plays on the human body and developing ways to monitor and protect against this silent hazard.
“Dosimeters and modeling techniques are used to determine how much energy is deposited in the space explorer’s bodies along with inflight tools to try to estimate what type of biological effects they might be experiencing,” said Tony Slaba, Ph.D., NASA research physicist. “Solar storms can cause acute radiation sickness during space flight which has to be dealt with in real time. There’s also an additional risk from exposure to GCRs which may cause central nervous system effects and delayed effects related to cancer and cardiovascular disease after the mission.”
While shielding strategies for GCRs remain difficult due to their extremely high energies, pharmaceutical countermeasures may be more effective than thick shielding to protect the crew from GCRs. NASA also is developing space weather forecasting tools to provide advance warning of SPEs. Solar protons can be easily shielded against for protection.