Vasavada: Radiation is Problem NASA Needs to Solve for Human Missions

Vasavada: Radiation is Problem NASA Needs to Solve for Human Missions

Describing some of the Curiosity mission’s discoveries in the rover’s first year on Mars during a lecture commemorating its anniversary, Deputy Project Scientist Dr. Ashwin Vasavada explained that the high levels of radiation measured by the spacecraft indicate that a Mars-bound human mission would exceed NASA’s lifetime exposure limit for astronauts. “It is a problem, but NASA has to solve it,” said Vasavada. “NASA just has to design the spacecraft to shield the astronauts that much better.”

Vasavada, who spoke as part of the Von Kármán Lecture Series at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Thursday night, outlined the goals of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, better known as Curiosity (the rover’s name).  “We are not looking for life with this mission,” he said.  The goal is to answer what he described as a “more practical question,” that is “whether Mars could have ever supported life.”

Reaching Mars in the first place was half the battle.  In describing the engineering challenge of landing “this beast,” Vasavada showed a slide (below) depicting the rover hanging from its skycrane during the landing sequence with the words “NO WAY” superimposed.  He suggested that it reflects the usual reaction of anybody who learned of the complicated steps required for a successful landing – what the agency dubbed the “7 minutes of terror.”

Image credit:  Ashwin Vasavada, JPL

As captured in a now-famous video showing ecstatic engineers at JPL and captivated citizens around the country, Curiosity performed the intricate dance perfectly and, on August 5, 2012 (Pacific Daylight Time, August 6 Eastern Daylight Time), landed safely on Mars at Gale Crater.

As it moves within the crater towards Mount Sharp, its target exploration site, Curiosity is “a little way into a long journey,” said Vasavada.  Yet already the measurements and images that the rover has sent to Earth have enabled significant scientific discoveries – from the engineering feat of figuring out the movement of the rover’s arm to allow for self-portraits, to finding examples of evidence that water once flowed on Mars and the detection of clay minerals, to finding that argon – not nitrogen – is the next most-common element in the Martian atmosphere.

“It’s not life-changing,” said Vasavada of the latter discovery, “but…it is rewriting the text-books.  Someone needs to update that Wikipedia page.”

The archived webcast of the lecture is available on JPL’s website.


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