Bad Cosmic Weather Could Boost Danger of Manned Mars Missions

Any manned missions to Mars will be incredibly dangerous endeavors no matter what, but increased levels of harmful cosmic rays in our solar system mean the next few decades may be an especially unpleasant time to be in space, a new study suggests. Cosmic rays are a form of high-energy radiation capable of penetrating any known material. Extended exposure can damage organs and produce cancers. This radiation is usually deflected, partially at least, by the sun's magnetic field — but that field is hitting some of the lowest levels in a century, part of a natural cycle stars like ours go though now and then.

The result is that any astronaut in space will absorb the maximum safe dosage of cosmic rays in 20 percent less time: around 300 days versus around 400 when the sun's field is more active. That means a trip to Mars and back, which would take about a year at a minimum, would involve hazardous exposure levels. Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire, the study's lead author, said that while the cosmic threat is "not necessarily a showstopper," it's certainly "a significant and worsening factor."

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—Devin Coldewey