How Mars recent solar storm could put astronauts at risk – Firstpost

Data from the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, which is presently monitoring the Sun, show that the most intense storm hit Mars on 20 May, following the release of an X12 flare. Pixabay/Representative Image

In May, Mars was struck by a powerful solar storm that engulfed the planet in radiation, charged particles, and auroras.

During the solar storm, the MAVEN orbiter — an acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN — saw auroras dancing in ultraviolet light over the red planet from above.

Though the incident may have provided scientists a chance to study the planet, it could be highly dangerous for future astronauts.

Here’s why.

What happened?

Data from the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, which is presently monitoring the Sun, show that the most intense storm hit Mars on 20 May, following the release of an X12 flare.

The huge flare shot charged particles in the direction of Mars and sent X-rays and gamma rays hurtling towards the planet.

Shortly after the flare, a coronal mass ejection was released.

According to CNN, tracking the activity from NASA’s Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, scientists found that the charged particles arrived on Mars just tens of minutes after the X-rays and gamma rays reached the planet at the speed of light.

During the solar storm, the navigation cameras of the Curiosity rover, which is presently exploring Gale Crater, just south of the Martian equator, captured black-and-white photos.

NASA claims that the photographs show white, snow-like streaks that are caused by charged particles striking Curiosity’s cameras.

Why it can be risky for astronauts?

The Mars Odyssey orbiter’s star camera—which aids in the probe’s orientation as it circles the planet—temporarily shut down due to the intense energy from the solar particles.

According to the report, the camera was able to turned back on by the spacecraft in less than an hour.

Odyssey has not experienced such intense solar activity since the 2003 solar maximum, when an X45 flare destroyed the orbiter’s radiation detector.

As the storm was occurring, Curiosity measured the amount of radiation striking the planet with its Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD.

It’s not fatal, but if an astronaut had been standing next to the rover, they would have been exposed to radiation equivalent to 30 chest X-rays. This is the highest radiation surge the rover’s equipment has recorded since it landed almost 12 years ago.

Scientists can better plan how to protect future crewed missions to Mars by having an understanding of the peak radiation levels that people may encounter on the red planet.

“Cliffsides or lava tubes would provide additional shielding for an astronaut from such an event. In Mars orbit or deep space, the dose rate would be significantly more. I wouldn’t be surprised if this active region on the Sun continues to erupt, meaning even more solar storms at both Earth and Mars over the coming weeks,” said Don Hassler, RAD principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute’s Solar System Science and Exploration Division in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

How common are solar storms? 

The sun has been more active in the past year as it approaches solar maximum, the culmination of its 11-year cycle, which is expected to happen later this year.

There has been an increase in solar activity in recent months, as seen by coronal mass ejections — vast clouds of ionised gas known as plasma and magnetic fields that erupt from the Sun’s outer atmosphere — and X-class flares, the strongest kind of solar flares, reported CNN.

Auroras, which are rare in places like Northern California and Alabama, danced in the skies above the planet in May as a result of solar storms that touched down on Earth.

The storms were caused by a large group of sunspots that were oriented towards Earth.

Subsequently, the sunspot cluster began to revolve towards Mars, Earth’s cosmic neighbour.

The abundance of orbiters circling the red planet and the rovers traversing its surface allowed astronomers to witness firsthand the effects of a solar storm on Mars and to gain a better understanding of the radiation levels that the planet’s first astronauts would encounter in the future.

With inputs from agencies

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