Humans have yet to reach Mars, but preparations are now being made as experts believe that within the decade, astronauts could be sent off to the Red Planet as early as the 2030s.
Assuming all goes well in NASA's crewed Artemis missions to the moon, the institution sees a possibility to push for exploration to Mars. New research yet to be published suggests that astronauts might come across 'homes' ready for occupancy when they reach the planet, as long as they know where to look.
These temporary homes come in the form of massive lava tubes hidden deep beneath the planet's surface. Researchers say that the pipes could provide a haven for astronauts to protect themselves from radiation.
Researchers performed trials on lava caves here on Earth to test how they would effectively block radiation. Results from their trial suggest that the same massive structures found on Mars might make acceptable homes for humans.
When crewed missions are sent to the moon, the astronauts will be spending most of their time inside the spacecraft they used to get there. Shelters on the moon's surface might eventually be considered, but for now, NASA wants to make sure their astronauts remain most of their time inside the safety of their ship.
Traveling to Mars would be a different story. The trip would be longer, more costly, and more challenging. Experts say it would make good sense to get the most out of a mission to the Red Planet.
Additionally, they say that living inside the spacecraft might not be doable, unlike the missions to the moon. Furthermore, transporting supplies for the construction of a temporary shelter might be equally futile, which leaves the planet's natural features as the only choice for long-term housing.
The paper on using hollow lava tubes for shelter homes on Mars is on its way for publication in The Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.
Radiation in Mars
Unlike the Earth, a protective magnetosphere is nonexistent in Mars. Scientists believe that at some time in the past, Mars also experienced convection currents at its core. They speculate that the currents caused a dynamo effect that powered a planetary magnetic field.
However, about 4.2 billions year ago, this dynamo effect stopped. The reason for its sudden cessation is unclear, but astronomers believe that it could either be due to a massive impact from a large object, or the rapid cooling in its core.
As a consequence of the halt, Mars' atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind over the next 500 million years. Due to the loss of its magnetic field and its atmosphere, the surface of Mars is now exposed to much higher levels of radiation than Earth.
Furthermore, aside from its regular exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind, the planet receives occasional devastating blasts that take place with intense solar flares.
Researchers say that rocks tend to be pretty good at absorbing radiation. This has led the research team to test lava caves on Earth to see how much radiation they can block.
Although the comparison may not be perfect since the exact properties of the lava tubes on Mars is unknown, the researchers convey that Martian caves could block over 80% of the radiation coming from space.