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How a Powerful Solar Storm on Mars Highlights Challenges for Future Astronaut Missions

Radiation Exposure Will Be a Major Concern for Mars Astronauts, Solar Storm Data Reveals

As NASA’s Mars missions continue to explore the Red Planet, a pressing concern for future crewed missions has come into sharp focus: radiation exposure. The solar cycle is reaching its peak, and solar storms are becoming increasingly intense, posing a significant threat to the health and safety of astronauts on Mars. The data collected by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission and the Curiosity rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) have revealed the extent to which solar storms can impact radiation levels on Mars.

On May 20, 2024, a massive solar storm originating from sunspot AR3664 bombarded Mars, raising crucial concerns for future crewed missions to the Red Planet. This article explores the storm’s impact, the risks it poses to astronauts, and the necessary preparations for safe and successful human exploration of Mars.

Key Takeaways

The recent powerful solar storm on Mars underscored significant challenges for future human missions:

  1. Radiation Hazards: Mars lacks a global magnetic field, exposing its surface to intense solar radiation during events like the May 2024 solar storm. The radiation levels observed were substantial, equivalent to 30 chest X-rays.
  2. Impact on Technology: Solar storms can disrupt spacecraft operations and damage instruments. The Curiosity rover’s RAD instrument recorded a significant radiation surge, affecting both its navigation and star-tracking cameras.
  3. Human Health Concerns: While not immediately lethal, prolonged exposure to such radiation poses health risks for astronauts. Protective measures, such as utilizing cliffsides or lava tubes for shielding, are crucial.
  4. Agricultural Implications: Mars’ thin atmosphere allows energetic particles to penetrate to the surface, posing challenges for agriculture. Growing food in protected environments like lava tubes may be necessary, but it remains a daunting task due to energy and space constraints.
  5. Future Mission Preparedness: Understanding solar weather patterns and their effects on Mars is essential for planning safe and resilient future missions. Ongoing research aims to improve our ability to predict and mitigate these risks.

The Solar Event

On May 20, a massive X12 solar flare burst from sunspot AR3697, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME). This sent a blast of scorching solar plasma racing towards Mars at millions of miles per hour. It was one of the strongest solar storms ever observed on Mars, based on data from Europe’s Solar Orbiter and NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiter, 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, and Curiosity rover.

Impact Mars

The purple color in this image shows auroras on Mars’ nightside as detected by the ultraviolet instrument aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter in May.NASA/UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO/LASP
The purple color in this image shows auroras on Mars’ nightside as detected by the ultraviolet instrument aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter in May.NASA/UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO/LASP

Mars, unlike Earth, lacks a global magnetic field, leaving its surface vulnerable to charged particles from solar storms. When the May 20th storm hit, it created auroras that blanketed the entire planet. These Martian auroras, unlike those on Earth, were widespread due to the absence of a magnetic shield. MAVEN captured this stunning display, which would have appeared as a jade-green light show to human observers on the Martian surface.

However, the beauty of these auroras belied the danger they represented. The Curiosity rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) measured a radiation dose equivalent to 30 chest X-rays during the storm. While not lethal, such exposure is far from benign and poses significant risks to human health.

The solar storm affected Mars’ robotic explorers significantly. Curiosity’s navigation cameras and the star trackers on the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were flooded with static, similar to the “snow” seen on old TVs due to charged particles hitting the camera sensors. Additionally, the storm caused degradation to the spacecrafts’ solar panels, equivalent to a year’s worth of wear and tear in just one event. This underscores a critical challenge for future missions: ensuring the power and operational integrity of equipment during intense solar activity.

Understanding Solar Storms on Mars

 An image captured by NASA's Curiosity Mars showing evidence of a solar storm's charged particles arriving at the Martian surface in this three-frame video taken by one of the rover's navigation cameras on May 20, 2024 (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
An image captured by NASA’s Curiosity Mars showing evidence of a solar storm’s charged particles arriving at the Martian surface in this three-frame video taken by one of the rover’s navigation cameras on May 20, 2024 (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

What is a Solar Storm?

A solar storm, often referred to as a geomagnetic storm, occurs when the Sun emits a burst of solar wind and magnetic fields that interact with Earth’s magnetosphere. These storms are characterized by solar energetic particles (SEPs) and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). SEPs are high-energy particles that can penetrate spacecraft and affect both astronauts and electronics, while CMEs are massive bursts of solar wind and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or being released into space.

Radiation Levels

When a powerful solar storm hits Mars, the planet can become engulfed in intense radiation. NASA’s Curiosity rover, equipped with the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), has measured radiation levels on the Martian surface during these events. During the May 2024 solar storm, the RAD instrument recorded a radiation dose equivalent to 30 chest X-rays, the largest surge of radiation detected since the rover’s landing.

Radiation Risks for Astronauts

An image of an astronaut  on Mars

Health Hazards

Radiation exposure is one of the most significant health risks for astronauts traveling to and living on Mars. The types of radiation include:

Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs)

High-energy particles from outside our solar system. These particles are highly energetic and can cause significant damage to the human body. Exposure to GCRs can lead to an increased risk of cancer, damage to the central nervous system, and potential impacts on cardiovascular health.

Solar Particle Events (SPEs)

Bursts of particles from the Sun, which are particularly dangerous during solar storms. SPEs can cause acute radiation sickness, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. Long-term exposure to SPEs can also increase the risk of cancer and damage to the central nervous system.

Current Protective Measures

Current technology provides some shielding against radiation, but there are limitations:

Spacecraft Shielding

Utilizes materials like polyethylene, which is effective against SPEs but less so against GCRs. This is because polyethylene is better at absorbing low-energy particles like those from SPEs, but less effective against high-energy particles like those from GCRs.

Habitat Shielding

Habitats on Mars can be designed with thicker walls or covered with regolith to provide additional protection. This is because regolith, the Martian soil, can provide some shielding against radiation. However, this method is not foolproof and may not be effective against all types of radiation.

Protective Measures for Astronauts

For future crewed missions, the threats posed by solar storms require strong protective measures. One promising idea is to use natural features on Mars like cliffsides or lava tubes. These structures could serve as natural shelters, offering essential protection against radiation during solar storms. This strategy aims to minimize astronauts’ exposure to harmful radiation levels, ensuring their safety on the Red Planet.

Moreover, real-time space weather forecasting will be essential. Astronauts on Mars will need to stay informed about solar activity to seek shelter in time. Quick access to safe zones will be crucial, given that solar particles can reach Mars in minutes.

The Road Ahead

Learn how NASA’s MAVEN and the agency’s Curiosity rover will study solar flares and radiation at Mars during solar maximum – a period when the Sun is at peak activity.
 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/SDO/MSSS/University of Colorado

With sunspot AR3697 remaining active and directed towards Mars, scientists anticipate additional solar events that could deepen our insights into Mars’ atmospheric changes and its potential to sustain human habitation. Each solar storm not only expands our scientific understanding but also helps us prepare for the practical hurdles of living and operating on the Red Planet. These ongoing studies are crucial for advancing our readiness for future Mars missions and ensuring the safety of astronauts exploring the Martian surface.


The May 2024 solar storm on Mars serves as a stark reminder of the challenges that space weather poses for human exploration. By studying these events and their impacts on Mars, scientists can develop strategies to protect future astronauts and ensure the success of crewed missions to the Red Planet. The data collected from this solar storm not only enriches our understanding of Martian atmospheric dynamics but also helps pave the way for safer and more resilient space exploration.

Future missions will require advanced technologies, robust protective measures, and comprehensive health support systems to address the diverse challenges presented by the Martian environment. As we continue to explore and comprehend our neighboring planet, these preparations will play a pivotal role in transforming the vision of human presence on Mars into reality.

Selig Amoak
Selig Amoak
Selig is a passionate space enthusiast and advocate. He has been fascinated by space since he was a child, and his passion has only grown over the years. Selig is particularly interested in the exploration of Mars and the search for life beyond Earth. Selig is also a strong believer in the importance of space education and outreach. He is currently a student at the University of Mines and Technology, and he is excited to use his skills and knowledge to contribute to the space education community.


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