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SwRI-led RAD measures radiation from solar storm
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San Antonio — January 27, 2012 — The largest solar particle event since 2005 hit the Earth, Mars and the
Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft travelling in-between, allowing the
Radiation Assessment Detector to measure the radiation a human
astronaut could be exposed to en route to the Red Planet.
On Sunday, a huge coronal mass ejection erupted from the surface of the
sun, spewing a cloud of charged particles in our direction, causing a
strong "S3" solar storm. A NASA Goddard Space Weather Lab
animation of the CME illustrates how the disturbance impacts Earth,
Mars and several spacecraft. Solar storms can affect the Earth's aurorae,
satellites, air travel and GPS systems; no harmful effects to the Mars
Science Laboratory have been detected from this solar event.
"We only have a few hours of data downloaded from the RAD so far, but we
clearly see the event, said RAD Principal Investigator Don Hassler,
science program director in the Space Studies Department at
Southwest Research Institute. The
Mars Science Laboratory, launched Nov. 26, will land a sophisticated
car-sized rover called Curiosity on the surface of the planet in August.
Loaded with 10 instruments including RAD, Curiosity will traverse the
landing site looking for the building blocks of life and characterizing
factors that may influence life, such as the harsh radiation environment
expected on Mars. "This SPE encounter is particularly exciting in light
of the alignment between the Earth, MSL and Mars right now and for the
next few months. It will be very interesting to compare the RAD data,
collected from inside the capsule, with the data from other spacecraft."
This event has also been seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory,
Geostationary Operational Environment Satellites, the Advanced
Composition Explorer, and the twin Solar Terrestrial Relations
Observatory spacecraft in Earth orbit as well as the Solar Heliospheric
Observatory flying between Earth and the sun.
"RAD was designed to characterize radiation levels on the surface of
Mars, but an important secondary objective is
measuring the radiation during the almost nine-month journey through
interplanetary space to prepare for future human exploration," said
Hassler. "RAD is an important bridge between the science and exploration
sides of NASA.
"Not only will this give us insight into the physics of these giant
clouds, but like an astronaut, RAD is tucked inside the MSL
'spacecraft,'" Hassler continued. "Measurements from RAD will give us
insight about the shielding provided by spacecraft for future manned
missions in deep space."
RAD will collect data nearly continuously during cruise and will
downlink data every 24 hours. Positioned in the front-left corner of the
rover, the instrument is about the size of a coffee can and weighs about
three pounds, but has capabilities of an Earth-bound instrument nearly
10 times its size. When MSL arrives at Mars,
RAD will detect charged particles arriving from space and will
measure neutrons and gamma rays coming from Mars' atmosphere above, or
the surface material below, the rover.
SwRI, together with Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany,
built RAD with funding from the NASA Human Exploration and Operations
Mission Directorate and Germany's national aerospace research center,
Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt.
The Mars Science Laboratory is a project of NASA's Science Mission
Directorate. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
a division of Caltech. The mission's rover was designed, developed and
assembled at JPL.
Movie/Measuring radiation on Mars:
Movie/Measuring radiation en route to Mars:
For more information, contact
Deb Schmid, (210) 522-2254, Communications Department, Southwest Research
Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.