Scientists say that a manned mission to Mars is feasible in the next decade and some have even drawn up a relatively detailed outline of plans to settle the planet. While such a scenario may spark visions of adventure in the human imagination, information provided by NASA’s rovers—specifically Curiosity—reveals one health hazard human visitors might encounter on a trip to the Red Planet.
NASA equipped Curiosity with a radiation assessment detector (RAD) for measuring radiation doses both during the flight to Mars and when exploring the planet surface. Based on the measurements made in-flight and for roughly 300 days on Mars’ surface, an astronaut traveling to Mars would experience radiation at a level of approximately 100–200 mSv/year, which seems to increase cancer risk. The 180-day flight to Mars would expose an astronaut to 332 +/- 54 mSv and a 500-day stint on the planet results in an exposure of 320 +/- 50 mSv.1
For reference, the average Earthling experiences a background radiation dosage around 1–3 mSv/year. An expedition to Mars would inflict a dose around 100 times higher. Scientific studies indicate these increased doses of radiation would likely result in detrimental health effects, although somewhat lower levels might bring health benefits.2 However, the higher radiation levels mean that any hypothetical microbial life on Mars forced into dormancy would have been wiped out within a few million years.
Instruments onboard Curiosity dated the mudstone on the floor of the Gale Crater where the rover landed. A K-Ar analysis calculated that the mudstone formed about 4.21 +/- 0.35 billion years ago. Further study of noble gases in the mudstone (specifically He, Ne, and Ar) revealed that the mudstone was exposed on the planet surface around 80 million years ago.3 These results came as no surprise to scientists, but they did highlight that ages pointing to great antiquity are not confined to analyses performed in Earth conditions. In other words, studies show that geological formations on Mars reveal ages consistent with those on Earth.
Curiosity’s reports add yet more evidence to the argument for a universe and solar system that have existed for billions of years. At the same time, the radiation measurements demonstrate that Earth really is the ideal place for life—a point in favor of the idea that an intentional Creator designed our unique home planet with us in mind. We look forward to more fascinating, faith-affirming discoveries from the Mars rovers.
For more on the reliability of radiometric dating methods, see “Radiometric Dating—A Christian Perspective.”