How Mark Watney Would Have Been Affected by Radiation on Mars

Thursday, 17 March 2016 - 2:13PM
Science of Sci-Fi
Mars
Thursday, 17 March 2016 - 2:13PM
How Mark Watney Would Have Been Affected by Radiation on Mars
The Martian has been hailed as one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies (and books) of all time, depicting realistic processes for space travel, cultivating food on Mars, and making a retro Mars playlist. But since most of the film takes place during Mark Watney's stay on the Red Planet, we don't get to see the aftereffects, including possible side effects from radiation. In a new study called "The Radiation Threat to 'The Martian,'" Ron Turner, an expert in astronaut radiation-risk management at the security and defense analysis group ANSER, explored whether radiation would have posed a real threat to Mark Watney.

Opening quote
"The saga of Mark Watney details how his efforts to science the hell out of this to overcome one crisis after another left out one risk that is a major concern today for mission planners: the threat from radiation exposure," he wrote in the paper.
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According to Turner's findings, Watney's crewmates would have been in far more danger of radiation poisoning out in space (one of the many benefits of being stranded on an extraterrestrial planet). Solar storms, in particular, lead to high levels of radiation exposure die to the high-energy particles coming from the Sun. This risk is time-dependent, as the frequency of solar storms varies in predictable patterns. Since The Martian takes place in November 2035, the sun would have been near the maximum of its 11-year activity cycle. This means that solar storms would occur approximately once a month, which astronauts would need to find some way to avoid.

Opening quote
"The key for solar storms is providing a warning architecture of solar-monitoring satellites and instruments that measure radiation levels in real time in the habitats and [that are] carried with the astronauts, so they know they need to stay in shelter," Turner told Space.com.
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If they did happen to run into a solar storm, they could still potentially avoid high levels of exposure by remaining in the more shielded areas of the Hermes, similar to the methods used on the International Space Station. Turner estimated that 4-12 inches of shielding would protect them from the majority of solar storms.

As for Mark Watney himself, he would have been protected by the otherwise hostile environment on Mars. The atmosphere is relatively thin, but still would provide protection from most solar storms. And the planet itself would further block the high-energy particles, if a solar storm ever happened to occur during the night, when Mars would stand between Watney and the Sun.

Opening quote
"Since Mark spent most of his time in the rover or in the habitat, and since the atmosphere does a good job of attenuating solar radiation, Mark would not be at substantial risk, even if he did not know a solar storm was underway, in all but the worst possible solar storms," Turner said.
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