Surviving Mars

Surviving Mars

For an outpost on Mars to succeed, we will need to ensure the basic requirements for life are met and protect ourselves from cosmic radiation.


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Earth Science, Astronomy, Geography

For explorers, “Mars is the enemy.” Why?

Mars’ weak magnetic field and thin atmosphere indicate explorers will face high levels of cosmic radiation exposure. Cosmic radiation originates in outer space and consists mostly of high-energy atomic nuclei. It can alter DNA molecules have both short-term and long-term health impacts.

Any Martian outpost would require a shelter resistant to this radiation.

One option scientists and engineers are considering is to go underground—into Marslava tubes. A lava tube is a natural tunnel that forms when surface channels of molten lava solidify. When the volcanic eruption ends, the liquid or molten lava in the tube empties, leaving a long and narrow cave behind. Finding and mapping lava tubes on Mars presents a technical challenge whose resolution could be the key to a successful expedition.

Fast Fact

NASA defines cosmic rays as “high-speed atomic nuclei with a wide range of energy.” These rays impact astronauts traveling outside the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic shield by acting like microscopic bullets damaging living cells.

Fast Fact

A lava tube is a natural tunnel that forms when channels of molten lava flow solidify on the top and sides. When the eruption ends, the tube empties leaving a long narrow cave behind. Lava tubes can be found in the states of Hawaii, northern California, Washington, and Oregon in the United States as well as in Iceland, the Canary Islands, and along the East African Rift Valley.

Fast Fact

The Tharsis Region of Mars is home to four large shield volcanoes including the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment has captured images in this region of structures scientists suspect are skylights of lava tubes, structures commonly found in association with shield volcanoes on Earth.

Media Credits

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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Caryl-Sue Micalizio, National Geographic Society
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Caryl-Sue Micalizio, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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