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Increasing cosmic radiation could hamper efforts to send humans to Mars

Photo by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio via Flickr Creative Commons

Space just got even more deadly.

A new study found that our sun has been significantly less active lately, leading to an increase in harmful cosmic radiation entering our solar system.

This adds to the numerous risks already facing astronauts hoping to one day make a six-month journey to Mars.

Cosmic radiation comes from deep space and is made up of highly charged particles traveling at near light speeds. Long term exposure can damage space equipment and cause cancer.

The Earth has a strong magnetic field deflecting these potentially deadly rays from inhabitants.

However, in space, cosmic radiation is a bigger threat, said Nathan Schwadron, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire and lead author of the paper which appears in the journal Space Weather.

Our sun can dampen the intensity of this radiation by casting out its own magnetic field, he explained.  The more active the sun is, the stronger that protective field is.

(An artists rendering of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the sun. Credit: NASA)

A calm and quiet sun

However, Schwadron's team recently noted that the sun is far less active than usual.

"It's sort of a hundred-year low in solar activity," he noted.

While the sun typically goes through periods of intense solar eruptions followed by calmer periods, Schwadron says right now even the more active periods are weak compared to decades past.

He noted that historical records suggest some lulls in solar activity have lasted decades, allowing heightened amounts of cosmic radiation to penetrate our solar system.

This means astronauts on any future missions to Mars or an asteroid could be exposed to levels of radiation that exceed NASA's lifetime limit.

In fact, Schwadron's team calculated that if this period of solar inactivity continues, by 2020 a 30-year-old man could reach that limit in 320 days and a 30-year-old woman would hit it in 240.

Given that it takes six months to reach Mars and 6 months to travel back, this would make round-trip rides very risky.

"No matter how you slice this problem, the radiation environment is much worse," he said.

Mars or bust

Some hopeful explorers aren't interested in a round trip though.

Ren-Horng Wang is a teacher in Arcadia and a candidate for Mars One, a private program looking to send humans to permanently settle on the Red Planet in 2024. 

(A depiction of a Mars One settlement. Image: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One)

"To go into space you have to pass through these kinds of hazards and that’s just a part of space travel," Wang said.

This latest research adds to a growing number of studies highlighting the potential threats to astronauts looking to live on Mars.

A recent analysis from MIT explored the dangers Mars One colonizers will face, from suffocation to dehydration.

"I've been thinking about it, but it doesn't really change my mind that much," Wang said of the studies.

He noted that researchers are working on ways to solve these problems and pointed out that studies like these help identify obstacles that still need to be addressed.

He also said that any planned trip is still far off in the future.

"I'm more focused on the day-to-day things right now."