May 06, 2015 04:04 PM EDT
Space radiation is one of the biggest problems that NASA faces if it wants to one day send humans to Mars. In a recent study, scientists found that exposure to this radiation can cause brain damage, meaning that astronauts making the journey may be unable to perform their duties once they arrive at the Red Planet. In an effort to come up with new ideas, NASA is offering prizes of up to $29,000 for anyone's novel design concept that could keep crew members safe.
Using traditional methods, engineers often build spacecraft using bulky materials designed to protect the astronauts. While this usually works, these crafts are often larger and heavier meaning they are more expensive to build and more difficult to launch and land. NASA hopes that at influx of new, fresh ideas could help them solve this problem so they can adequately protect the astronauts while keeping the costs down at the same time.
This isn't the first time NASA has offered a prize for new ideas. A few weeks ago, NASA announced the winners of a previous contest, including including George Hitt, a physics professor at Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates who got $5,000 as the first-place winner for a reusable radiation shield that would just stay in space indefinitely.
"At regular intervals, it will come close enough to Earth for a spacecraft to fly up to it and hitch a ride inside of it," Hitt said. "After riding to Mars orbit, [the spacecraft] would detach and leave the shield material behind, to return back to Earth."
When astronauts travel through space, they don't have the protection of Earth's magnetic field to shield them from solar radiation and cosmic rays that come from outside the solar system.
Neither of these have been a huge issue for human space exploration as the only time that astronauts have left Earth's magnetic field was during the Apollo missions to the moon, and during these missions they were only gone for a week or two at most.
Theoretically, astronauts on these short missions could have also been in danger. For example, between the Apollo 16 and 17 missions, the sun released a huge burst of protons that would have been dangerous for astronauts during that time. The journey to Mars would take at least six months each way making the risk much higher.
The most obvious risk is that the radiation would increase the astronaut's risk of cancer and NASA already caps how much time astronauts can spend on the International Space Station so their risk doesn't increase by more than 3 percent. Add to this the most recent study of mice that experienced brain damage that caused memory and focus problems when exposed to the amounts of radiation the astronauts would experience during the journey and there are real concerns that must be addressed before any mission could be undertaken.
This is why NASA is looking for new ideas to protect its astronauts. If you have a new, novel idea, tell NASA about it here and you could be their next winner.
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