Right Now Might Be Our Last Chance to Go to Mars in Our Lifetimes

By Alasdair Wilkins - io9 | November 5, 2010 5:39 pm

We could be running out of time to send astronauts to Mars

America’s current plans for human space exploration seem horribly slow, considering we won’t leave Earth’s orbit until 2025 and won’t reach Mars until 2035. Worse than that, solar radiation spikes could keep us grounded for decades more.

The Sun emits a steady stream of potentially deadly cosmic radiation. As long as humans remain within the Earth’s atmosphere, the threat posed by this radiation is practically nil, but any extended trips into deep space require careful shielding to protect astronauts from the threat of radiation sickness or cancer. The exact levels of radiation vary depending on the severity of solar activity, which falls into a number of predictable cycles.

That’s where the problem starts, according to a new study by NASA scientist John Norbury. We already know about the Schwabe cycle, which shows sunspot activity reaches its peak, known as the solar maximum, every 11 years. When this occurs, there’s a big increase in solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which together spread deadly radiation throughout the solar system. The last solar maximum was reached in 2002, so we’re headed for more in 2013, 2024, and 2035. Those last two dates are worrying, considering the current “2025 out of orbit/2035 to Mars” plans of the United States.

Of course, if solar flares really are a problem, then it’s easy enough to adjust the years slightly to avoid them. But we might be dealing with an even bigger problem: there’s also the Gleissberg cycle, which is a longer cycle where the intensity of the solar maximums themselves wax and wane over a period of about 80 to 90 years. That means all flares would be significantly more deadly, the radiation would be greater, and any trips beyond Earth’s orbit incredibly, perhaps impossibly, dangerous.

So when is the next time we hit the peak of the Gleissberg cycle? That’s the problem: we don’t know, at least not exactly. In order to know the exact timing of the next Gleissberg maximum, we would have to know when the last ones occurred, and that would require sunspot records going back centuries, which is something we don’t have. However, there are some indirect ways to estimate when the previous maximums occurred, mostly involving carbon-14.

Scientists are fairly sure the last maximums were in 1790, 1870, and 1950. That seems to put the next Gleissberg maximum at right around 2030, with a total danger zone of about 20 years from 2020 to 2040. That’s precisely when the United States—not to mention China and other countries—hope to send astronauts back to the Moon and onto Mars. If radiation levels are lethally high, a Mars mission could be a horrific failure, as astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell explains:

“The worse-case scenario is that if you radiate a crew sufficiently, they’d all succumb to radiation sickness within a few days and essentially vomit and diarrhoea themselves to death within an enclosed capsule.”

If all these fears of increased radiation come to pass, it still might be possible to send astronauts to Mars, assuming radiation shielding can be suitably improved. But that’s going to take serious investment in new technologies that can repel the cosmic rays without creating secondary radiation. Honestly, it might just be easier to get to Mars by the end of the decade. Hey, it worked for the Apollo project…

[Advances in Space Research via Physics World]

io9logoThis post originally appeared on io9.

io9. Escape to the world of tomorrow.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space Flight, Top Posts

Comments (10)

  1. Dean

    “The sky is falling ! The sky is falling!”

    I do apologize for being so blunt, crude. The reasons we go is BECAUSE we don’t know, want to find out. If the captain of a sailing vessel were to apply the core of this, that sailing vessel would never leave the dock.

    But they have. Magellan, Drake, Da Gama, Hudson, Franklin, Challenger, and a myriad more, have all left safe harbor to venture into the unknown. And yes, they died, they will die, we will die. But you will die in your bed, safe and warm. And others will not.

    Sailors are wont to say, “Waste not a minute.” In sailing, if the tide is right (solar storm minimums) you set sail and go. Delays of a minute in sailing can, and do, mean delays of days in arrival. Go now.

  2. Realist

    We’re never leaving this planet under NASA:s leadership. No how, no way. The future of space exploration (if there is any) lies entirely with private space companies. Deal with it.

  3. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    It’s not the leadership, it’s the budget, commercials can’t go to Mars either. The reason we won’t go to Mars anytime soon is that 1) we don’t know how to do it, 2) it is too expensive anyway, 3) where is the exploratory ROI? There are a lot of interesting places between here and there. (Counting the Moon but discounting it as a record breaking “first”; been there, done _that_.)

    Sure, exploration goes for fancy places bypassing some more mundane ones at first. But it also does what is achievable. Problems what need to be licked before we go is besides the radiation hazard: neural system loss to radiation, bone loss to low stress environment, immune system loss for unknown reasons, and/or faster transits alleviating the earlier listed items, landing large crafts on Mars… possible more.

    Especially the last, since it is mandated and _no one_ knows how to land crafts larger than 1 metric ton on Mars (AFAIU). We lack essential technique! Until that is resolved Mars is, and remains, a pipe dream.

    [But yes, a larger budget would likely be gobbled up by organizational waste anyway.]

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    “Problems what need to be licked” – Problems that need to be licked. Such as my spelling when drowsy. ‘Scuses!

  5. Tr(ansh)uman

    I really don’t see the difference between sending a high-tech robot to sending humans to Mars when 99.9999 percent of us (humans) will not get there even with the rosiest projection of advances in propulsion technology? So why not simply send a high-tech bipedal robot (aka android) to Mars? If the estimates of some futurists are on the ball, we’ll have human-level artificial intelligence by 2035 that can do what a typical human can do.

  6. pk

    Sometimes the most elegant solutions come by challenging the basic assumptions of the question…”So why not simply send a high-tech bipedal robot (aka android) to Mars?”, i.e, why (if any) is there a priority on putting a human on Mars?

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Can’t we develop some sort of radiation shielding? I can recall seeing at least one design using magnetic fields in a non-fiction book on possible spacefaring somewhere.

    Plus I second what (#1.) Dean wrote too.

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    Aha – Magsails! – Magnetic sail spacecraft suggested by Robert Zubrin and Dana Andrews :

    “A magsails key component – still hypothetical – is a long loop of superconducting cable … when an electrical current is passed through the cable it flows continously creating a sustained magnetic field. This field deflects the solar wind …the [solar wind] particles impart much of their momentum to the loop which tows the ship along. … a magsail would help protect spacefarers fromdangerous radiation by its sheild of magnetism.”

    Source : Page 79,‘Starbound’ Time-Life Time-Life Editors 1991.

    That’s what I was referring to above. Wonder if that magsail idea has advanced at all since then & if we could really build those? 🙂

  9. After study a few of the blog posts in your website now, and I truly like your approach of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website record and will likely be checking again soon. Pls take a look at my web site as nicely and let me know what you think.

  10. Love your blog I’m going to subscribe,but anyway check this site!MyBigg.Com : Quality Paid to Click Business And Cheap PTC Advertising


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Alasdair Wilkins - io9


See More

Collapse bottom bar