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.

  • 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 Mars’ lava 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.

  • 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.

    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.

    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.  

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    atmosphere Noun

    layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere
    cave Noun

    underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

    cosmic ray Noun

    radiation originating in outer space and consisting mostly of high-energy atomic nuclei.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    eruption Noun

    release of material from an opening in the Earth's crust.

    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    exposure Noun

    availability of knowledge about something.

    indicate Verb

    to display or show.

    lava Noun

    molten rock, or magma, that erupts from volcanoes or fissures in the Earth's surface.

    lava tube Noun

    natural tunnel formed as liquid or molten lava flows beneath a hardened surface. 

    magnetic field Noun

    area around and affected by a magnet or charged particle.

    Mars Noun

    fourth planet from the sun, between Earth and Jupiter.

    nucleus Noun

    positively charged central region of an atom, containing protons and neutrons.

    originate Verb

    to begin or start.

    outer space Noun

    space beyond Earth's atmosphere.

    outpost Noun

    settlement or station located in a remote area.

    radiation Noun

    energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source.

    require Verb

    to need.

    resistant Adjective

    able to withstand the effects of a substance, material, or behavior.

    scientist Noun

    person who studies a specific type of knowledge using the scientific method.

    shelter Noun

    structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.