Moving to Mars? Better Pack a Shovel.

Author and Journalist

Living on Mars is an essential back-up plan for humanity, says author Stephen Petranek. One of the main problems with this fact is that a thinner atmosphere ensures that the surface of Mars gets pelted with dangerous levels of radiation day after day.

"Radiation on Mars is a significant problem," says Petranek. But one MIT scientist believes she's found the solution: a special spacesuit to replace the bulky suits of the past. Petranek describes it — plus other strategies for not dying a painful death on Mars — in this video.

  • Transcript


Stephen Petranek: Radiation on Mars is a significant problem; both solar radiation and cosmic rays are both a problem. We don’t have a dense atmosphere on Mars. It’s only about 1/100th the density of the atmosphere on Earth. And therefore there are not a lot of particles in the air for solar rays coming from the sun to collide with and be deflected as there are on Earth. Mars also doesn’t have a Van Allen belt like we have, which deflects a lot of solar radiation. And it does not have a molten core like we have which creates a magnetosphere around the Earth, which also deflects a great deal of radiation.

So Mars is a very radiated place in many ways. And people will need very, very thick walls on their buildings if they build above the surface to stop solar radiation and to hinder most of the cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are of mysterious origin. We don’t actually know where they come from, but they are little bits of atoms that are traveling at high speed. And these particles can penetrate 10 feet of steel. We are exposed to them on Earth. Pilots who fly transcontinental airline routes are actually exposed to quite a bit of cosmic radiation. Cosmic radiation, all radiation, undoubtedly in the long run causes cancer in human beings. One of the trade-offs, you might say, of going to Mars is that you are going to get more radiation than you get on Earth. Both on the trip out there and when you get to Mars. One of the defenses we will have against radiation on Mars is a spacesuit. But on Mars, we’re not going to wear spacesuits that look like these things in the movie Gravity that are kind of like deep-sea diving bags and this huge bubble on top of your head and they’re incredibly awkward and difficult to move around in and you’re kind of encapsulated.

A woman at MIT who has actually been nominated to be the number two person at NASA, a woman named Dava Newman has developed a spacesuit that looks more like something you would wear as an exercise clothing in a gym. It’s very tight-fitting, kind of spandexy-like. It has metallic threads in it and it’s fabulous at protecting you from radiation at least in a short period of time. It also does another interesting thing, which is because the atmosphere on Mars is so thin, you would not explode and you would not have nitrogen narcosis like you do with the bends. But you can’t survive long on Mars because just walking outside, if we forget about the radiation problem, because there’s not enough pressure on your skin. On Earth, we have 15 pounds, 14.7 pounds of atmosphere piled up above us that presses on our skin at all times. And as human beings over a long period of time, we have evolved in our bodies to be pushing back. So underneath our skin, essentially, our bodies are pushing out at all times to compensate for that 15 pounds of atmospheric pressure. Now you don’t need 15 pounds of atmospheric pressure pushing on you to kind of keep you from turning into a balloon. But you do need about five or six pounds. And a sort of spandexy kind of spacesuit will create enough pressure against your skin so that that problem is solved. So we have to do everything we can to protect people from radiation on Mars. And that probably means initially living underground. Eventually we will live above ground. It’s not that dissimilar from Antarctica. You can’t go outdoors in Antarctica in the winter. But people survive just fine in Antarctica. There’s — but radiation is a big bugaboo.