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The Martian Residual Crustal Magnetic Fields: A Mitigation Measure Against Space Radiation to Astronauts?

By Joshua Anthony, on 22 October 2021

Author: Shiba Rabiee, recent postgraduate student from IRDR, UCL. Shiba.rabiee.20@ucl.ac.uk | Linked In

Mars is approximately half of the size of Earth and is the fourth planet from the Sun. Due to its many similarities with Earth, Mars is argued to be the second most habitable planet in our solar system. The definitive goal has, therefore, always been a human exploration mission on Mars. After decades of research and space agencies working towards this goal, the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, announced in an interview that by 2026 they would be able to send astronauts to Mars in cooperation with NASA [1].

However, in deep space astronauts are exposed to dangerous levels of space radiation (i.e. Galactic Cosmic Radiation and Solar Energetic Particles), and Mars is no exception despite its similarities with Earth. In contrast to Earth’s dense atmosphere enabled by its global dipole magnetic field, Mars has residual crustal magnetic fields that cause a very thin atmosphere (~1% of Earth’s) [see Illustration 1] [2, 3]. This creates a highly radioactive and complex environment on Mars that has detrimental, and ultimately lethal, effects for astronaut’s health [3-5].

(Illustration 1. Source: Shiba Rabiee [panel a., created in Microsoft Word]; Kevin M. Gill [panel b., with modifications by Shiba Rabiee]. Cartoon illustrating the global dipole magnetic field of Earth (panel a.) and the residual crustal magnetic fields of Mars (panel b.)).

Throughout the years of sending astronauts into Low Earth Orbit (160-1000 km altitude above Earth), medical doctors and psychiatrists working with astronauts have noticed a decrease in their holistic health when operating a space mission [6, 7]. Space agencies have, therefore, several times encouraged engineers to develop mitigation measures for high radiation exposure but without much success. Shielding measures are essential, yet many issues arise with the creation of shielding such as high financial expense, how to transport the shielding to Mars, and how the material(s) will act in the Martian environment. Space radiation is, therefore, generally acknowledged as a potential barrier for human exploration missions both during Cruise-Phase and whilst on a planet or moon [8].

As space agencies try to create innovative solutions for spacecrafts and crewmembers during Cruise-Phase for a Mars mission, bigger challenges await when arriving on the red planet. A mission to Mars would require astronauts to stay on the planet for several weeks due to the distance between Mars and Earth. In combination with the Martian environment, long-duration space exploration poses several risks and increases the vulnerability to multiple hazards amongst both crewmembers and spacecrafts. Thus, in order to ethically send astronauts to Mars, the radiation problem has to be solved. Research to investigate the mitigation of radiation exposure and associated risks is important to protect good health.

The complexity of creating and transporting affordable mitigation measures has left space agencies with the question of whether to use resources from the Martian environment. A promising mitigation measure currently being discussed is the use of the Martian regolith as a shielding measure by creating a habitat of tunnels beneath the surface of Mars. Yet, this will not provide shielding for astronauts undergoing an extravehicular mission (spacewalk). A human exploration mission will, however, demand exploration of the Martian environment outside the habitat. The need for further investigation and the development of additional mitigation measures, therefore, remains.

The objective of my thesis was to investigate the use of the residual crustal magnetic fields of Mars as a mitigation measure against space radiation exposure during e.g., extravehicular missions. Research on the magnetic fields have been previously conducted [8-16], wherefrom the general argument is that the Martian atmosphere and the magnetic fields provide an equal amount of shielding against space radiation [8] [16]. Yet, these were founded on hypotheses as the Martian atmosphere was not considered during the simulation models [8]. Thus, it was unknown whether the atmosphere could, in fact, provide corresponding shielding measures.

The Martian atmosphere has roughly two orders of magnitude smaller column density than that of Earths and comprises ~95.1% carbon dioxide [16-19]. This, in combination with continuing atmospheric escape, causes the Martian atmosphere to provide almost no shielding against space radiation. Depending on the solar cycle and the chosen location, the estimations conducted for the thesis does, however, imply a potential prolonged extravehicular mission of e.g., ~34 sec/day to ~74 min/day within a field strength of 14 nT [see magnetic fields strength map for the range of field strengths measured at 400 km altitude]. These estimates will increase with increasing field strengths, thus, indicating that the residual crustal magnetic fields can be used as a mitigation measure. Moreover, the estimates imply a significant difference between shielding provided by the atmosphere and the residual crustal magnetic fields.

(Illustration 2. Source: Shiba Rabiee. Data source: Planetary Geologic Mapping Program; The Planetary Data System; the ArcGIS ESRI geodatabase. Map presenting the residual crustal magnetic field strengths measured by Mars Global Surveyor at 400 km altitude).

This conclusion is founded on methods and various assumptions. To confirm the results presented, further investigation of the residual crustal magnetic fields needs to be completed. Suggestions for potential future missions and research has, therefore, additionally been presented and discussed in the thesis.

Mars has been argued to have looked very similar to Earth ~3.8 billion years ago [see Illustration 3] [20]. Further investigations of the residual crustal magnetic fields of Mars will not only enable an understanding of its potential to act as a shielding measure, but similarly to Mars, atmospheric escape can also be found on Earth. Yet, despite long investigations of Earth’s atmospheric escape many questions remain unanswered. A comprehensive investigation of the residual crustal magnetic fields and its relation to the Martian environment could, therefore, inform about the core of Mars and the planets atmospheric escape, consequently enabling an understanding of the atmospheric leakage on Earth. Research in this area may provide essential information of what could be the future of Earth.

(Illustration 3. Source: Kevin M. Gill [modifications by Shiba Rabiee]. Depiction of the evolution of Mars from ~3.8 billion years ago (left) to the Martian environment today (right)).

Shiba Rabiee is a recent postgraduate student from IRDR, UCL. Email at Shiba.rabiee.20@ucl.ac.uk| Linked In


[1] Wall, Mike (2020): SpaceX’s 1st crewed Mars mission could launch as early as 2024, Elon Musk says. SPACE.com. https://www.space.com/spacex-launch-astronauts-mars-2024 [Accessed 17.02.2021].

[2] Matthiä, Daniel; Hassler, Donald M.; Wouter de Wet; Ehresmann, Bent; Firan, Ana; Flores-McLaughlin, John; Guo, Jingnan; Heilbronn, Lawrence H.; Lee, Kerry; Ratliff, Hunter; Rios, Ryan R.; Slaba, Tony C.; Smith, Micheal; Stoffle, Nicholas N.; Townsend, Lawrence W.; Berger, Thomas; Reitz, Günther; Wimmer-Schweingruber, Robert F.; Zeitlin, Cary (2017): The radiation environment on the surface of Mars – Summary of model calculations and comparison to RAD data. Life Science in Space Research, Volume 14. pp. 18-19.

[3] Hassler, Donald M.; Zeitlin, Cary; Wimmer-Schweingruber, Robert F.; Ehresmann, Bent; Rafkin, Scot; Eigenbrode, Jennifer L.; Brinza, David E.; Weigle, Gerald; Böttcher, Stephan; Böhm, Eckart; Burmeister, Soenke; Guo, Jingnan; Köhler, Jan; Martin, Cesar; Reitz, Guenther; Cucinotta, Francis A.; Kim, Myung-Hee; Grinspoon, David; Bullock, Mark A.; Posner, Arik; Gómez-Elvira, Javier; Vasavada, Ashwin; Grotzinger , John P.; MSL Science Team (2014): Mars’ Surface Radiation Environment Measured with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity Rover. Science. Volume 343, Issue 6169, 1244797. pp. 1-6.

[4] National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] (2020): What is space radiation?. NASA. https://srag.jsc.nasa.gov/spaceradiation/what/what.cfm [Accessed 08.08.2021].

[5] National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] (2019): NASA’s MMS Finds Its 1st Interplanetary Shock. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/nasa-s-mms-finds-first-interplanetary-shock  [Accessed 08.08.2021].

[7] Kennedy, Ann R. (2014): Biological effects of space radiation and development of effective countermeasures. Life Sciences in Space Research. Volume 1. DOI: 10.1016/j.lssr.2014.02.004. pp. 10-43.

[8] Durante, Marco (2014): Space radiation protection: Destination Mars. Life Sciences in Space Research. Volume 1. DOI: 10.1016/j.lssr.2014.01.002. pp. 2-9.

[9] Acuña, M.H.; Connerney, J.E.P.; Wasilewski, P.; Lin, R.P.; Anderson, K.A.; Carlson, C.W.; McFadden, J.; Curtis, D.W.; Mitchell, D.; Reme, H.; Mazelle, C.; Sauvaud, J.A.; d’Uston, C.; Cros, A.; Medale, J.L.; Bauer, S.J.; Cloutier, P.; Mayhew, M.; Winterhalter, D.; Ness, N.F. (1998): Magnetic Field and Plasma Observations at Mars: Initial Results of the Mars Global Surveyor Mission. Science. Volume 279, Issue 5357. DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5357.1676. pp. 1676-1680.

[10] Acuña, M. H.; Connerney, J.E.P.; Ness, N.F.; Réme, H.; Mazelle, C.; Vignes, D.; Lin, R.P.; Mitchell, D.L.; Cloutier, P.A. (1999): Global distribution of crustal magnetization discovered by the Mars Global Surveyor MAG/ER experiment.Science. Volume 284, Issue 5415. DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5415.790. pp. 790–793.

[11] Hiesinger, Harald; Head III, James W. (2002): Topography and morphology of the Argyre Basin, Mars: implications for its geologic and hydrologic history. Planetary and Space Science. Vol. 50, issues 10-11. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0032063302000545. pp. 939-981.

[12] Mitchell, D.L.; Lillis, R.J.; Lin, R.P.; Connerney, J.E.P.; Acuña, M.H. (2007): A global map of Mars’ crustal magnetic field based on electron reflectometry. Journal of Geophysical Research 2007. Vol. 112, EO1002. Doi: 10.1029/2005JE002564. pp. 1-9.

[13] Dartnell, L.R.; Desorgher, L.; Ward, J.M.; Coates, A.J. (2007): Martian sub-surface ionizing radiation: biosignatures and geology. Biogeosciences. Volume 4, Issue 4. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-4-545-2007. pp. 545-558.

[14] Lesur, V., Hamoudi, M., Choi, Y., Dyment, J., & Thébault, E. (2016). Building the second version of the World Digital Magnetic Anomaly Map (WDMAM). Earth Planets Space, 68, 27. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40623-016-0404-6. pp. 1-13.

[15] Langlais, Benoit; Thébault, Erwan; Houliez, Aymeic; Purucker, Micheal E.; Lillis, Robert J. (2019): A New Model of the Crustal Magnetic Field of Mars Using MGS and MAVEN. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Volume 124. DOI: https://doi. org/10.1029/2018JE005854. pp. 1542-1569.

[16] Carr, M.H. (1996): Water on Mars. Oxford University Press. Environmental Science, Physics Bulletin. Volume 38. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1088/0031-9112%2F38%2F10%2F017. pp. 374-375.

[17] Jakosky, B.M.; Slipski, M.; Benna, M.; Mahaffy, P.; Elrod, M.; Yelle, R.; Stone, S.; Alsaeed, N. (2017): Mars’ atmospheric history derived from upper-atmosphere measurements of 38Ar/36Ar. Science. Volume 355, Issue 6332. DOI: 10.1126/science.aai7721. pp. 1408-1410.

[18] Nier, A.O.; Hanson, W.B.; Seiff, A.; McElroy, M.B.; Spencer, N.W.; Duckett, R.J.; Knight, T.C.D.; Cook, W.S. (1976): Composition and Structure of the Martian Atmosphere: Preliminary Results from Viking 1. Science. Volume 193, Issue 4255. DOI: 10.1126/science.193.4255.786. pp. 786-788.

[19] Nier, A.O.; McElroy, M.B. (1977): Composition and Structure of Mars’ Upper Atmosphere: Results From the Neutral Mass Spectrometers on Viking 1 and 2. AGU. Journal of Geophysical Research. Volume 82, Issue 28. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1029/JS082i028p04341. pp. 4341-4349.

[20] National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] (2017): The Look of a Young Mars. NASA.https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/the-look-of-a-young-mars-3 [Accessed 25.08.2021].

Illustrations and Map

Gill, Kevin M. [modified by Shiba Rabiee] (2015): Mars. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/53460575@N03/16716283421 [Accessed 13.10.2021].

ArcGIS: ESRI geodatabase – ESTRI_ASTRO. https://www.arcgis.com/home/user.html?user=esri_astro [Accessed: 10.05.2021].

NASA: Planetary Data System. https://pds-ppi.igpp.ucla.edu/search/?t=Mars&facet=TARGET_NAME [Accessed: 27.05.2021].

USGS; NASA: The Planetary Geologic Mapping Program. https://planetarymapping.wr.usgs.gov [Accessed: 04.05.2021].

Gill, Kevin M. [modified by Shiba Rabiee] (2015): Evolution of Mars. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/53460575@N03/17234143751 [Accessed 14.10.2021].

Space health and disaster risk reduction

By Myles Harris, on 12 April 2021

There is an association between remote environments and health due to limited resources and accessibility to healthcare services. Thus, people who live in a remote environment have disproportionate health inequalities in comparison to those in an urban location [1]. While it is predicted global urbanisation is set to increase during the 21st century, approximately 3.1 – 3.3 billion people will still be living in a remote environment between the years 2015 and 2050, such as the remote mountain community in Figure 1 [2]. With this in mind, remote health is an important topic of research.

Figure 1 Remote mountain community

Providing healthcare in the remotest environment outer space may seem worlds away from healthcare on Earth; however, limited resources and accessibility are threads that tie remote health and space health together. For example, a minor injury or illness can rapidly become a major event if the available resources do not meet the needs of the patient, and there are limited opportunities for rapid (aero)medical evacuation should the patient’s condition deteriorate [3]. With this in mind, healthcare practitioners must provide prolonged care in the field (prehospitally) and sustainably use the resources available to them; this approach to clinical practice can be described as prolonged field care (PFC) [4,5].

It is important to note that when providing PFC in a remote environment or outer space, healthcare providers (doctors, nurses or allied health professionals) are required to meet all holistic care needs of the patient, despite being trained to specialise in one area of medicine or health. Telemedicine may offer remote consultation with specialist members of a multidisciplinary healthcare team, but this is a vulnerable dependency on internet or satellite connection, which is often unreliable due to the topography or distance from connected locations (such as Mars). There is limited literature on interdisciplinary healthcare practice, therefore, patients and practitioners are exposed to heuristically developing remote or space health practice and human error. This is a social vulnerability that increases the risk of disaster (physical or psychological deterioration of patient’s health) in environments where resources and accessibility are already limited [6].

UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster (IRDR), Space Health Risks Research Group, is a multidisciplinary community of researchers and practitioners who are investigating how the mitigation of risks to health in space can contribute to promoting good health and well-being in remote environments on Earth. On 01st September 2021, IRDR Space Health Risks Research Group will be hosting a symposium on ‘space health and disaster risk reduction’, in collaboration with industry partners and Universities of Manchester, Bristol and King’s College London. The symposium is funded by UCL Grand Challenges and booking details will be released here: https://tinyurl.com/spacehealthrisks.

The symposium will be a theoretical exploration of how interdisciplinary healthcare practice during deep space missions to explore other planetary bodies (Figure 2) can inform disaster risk reduction and remote health system on Earth, including how to promote good health and well-being. The aim is to establish a multidisciplinary consensus on the provision of prolonged, holistic healthcare (PFC) for an interdisciplinary healthcare practitioner. An underlying objective of the symposium is to identify where consensus is not achieved, thus highlighting research gaps for future systematic enquiry. The symposium is open to all healthcare providers, including those on a professional register and qualified first aiders.

Figure 2 EVA exploration of the Lunar surface

During the symposium, attendees will participate in breakout rooms with the following themes:

  • Space medicine
  • Global health (and public health)
  • Medicine, nursing and allied health (military and civilian)
  • Anthropology (biosocial, medical and data science)
  • Disaster sciences

Informal discussions will take place in the breakout rooms about how each discipline (the breakout room theme) can contribute to interdisciplinary healthcare practice during the exploration of another planetary body and when in a remote environment on Earth. Each breakout room will be facilitated by affiliate or associate members of IRDR Space Health Risks Research Group, and attendees will be invited to (anonymously) share their thoughts via an online Microsoft Form for each breakout room they participate in. The symposium will take place in-person at UCL Institute for Advanced Studies (lite refreshments provided) and online to enable world-wise participation.

Cultural engagement and perception of health differs hugely around the world, hence understanding how the perception of good health and well-being may change in space has relevance for remote health on Earth. Thus, the notions of future healthcare during deep space missions and on other planetary bodies brings into question the meaning of health, relative to remote environments. Therefore, exploring future healthcare practices and cultural engagement of health in space, through the lenses of healthcare, anthropology and disaster science, is a significant area of interest that has benefit to society. The findings of this symposium will contribute to the knowledge of interdisciplinary healthcare practice in space, and to reducing health inequalities for people in remote environments on Earth by informing remote health systems, policy and training.

12th April is the UN International Day of Human Space Flight, which celebrates the first human flight in space by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the famous space flight [7]. In the UN General Assembly 2011 resolution about the International Day of Human Space Flight, “the important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals and increasing the well-being of States and peoples,” is reaffirmed [8]. In this spirit, IRDR Space Health Risks Research Group are developing the first UK pilot analogue space mission (a simulated space mission), which will take place in Spring 2022.

Analogue space missions are an opportunity to conduct research in simulated outer space conditions [9]. There are many types of analogue missions and it is important to clearly define what aspect of space is being simulated for research impact. For the pilot analogue mission, the Lunar and Martian topography is being represented by the Cairngorm National Park mountains in Scotland, whereas the limited resources and accessibility during an extra-vehicular activity (EVA – spacewalk; Figure 2) are being simulated. Analogue astronauts will be evaluating the findings of the space health and disaster risk reduction symposium, critically appraising how their interdisciplinary clinical decision making was informed during three healthcare scenarios of the pilot analogue mission. The findings of the pilot analogue space mission will similarly inform remote health practice, policy and training on Earth; but, furthermore, it will lay the foundation for future high-fidelity analogue space mission research in the UK.

While space is a remote environment that begins 100km above our heads, remoteness is much closer than most people recognise. The recent COVID19 pandemic has created a temporary remote environment for many people, caused by self-isolation, physical distancing and transmission control precautions (Figure 3). However, the higher COVID19 transmission rates in areas with limited resources and accessibility to healthcare services exemplify the disproportionate health inequalities of people permanently living in remote environments [10]. Furthermore, perceptions of good health and well-being have changed, which echoes the concept of space health. IRDR Space Health Risks Research Group’s investigation of the interrelation between space health and disaster risk reduction aims to bridge these research gaps and contribute to remote health on Earth.

Figure 3 COVID-19 transmission control precautions


[1] Henning-Smith, C. (2020) The unique impact of COVID-19 on older adults in rural areas, Journal of Aging and Social Policy, 32, pp. 396-402.

[2] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2018) World Urbanization prospects. [online]. New York: United Nations. Available at: https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/ [Accessed 01 March 2021].

[3] DeSoucy, E., Shackelford, S., Dubose, J., Zweben, S., Rush, S., Kotwalk, R., Montgomery, H. and Keenan, S. (2017) Review of 54 cases of prolonged field care, Journal of Special Operations Medicine, 17 (1), pp. 121-129.

[4] Keenan, S. (2015) Deconstructing the definition of prolonged field care, Journal of Special Operations Medicine, 15 (4), p. 125.

[5] Keenan, S. and Riesberg, J. (2017) Prolonged field care: beyond the “golden hour”, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 28 (2), pp. 135-139.

[6] Ellis, P. (2019) What is evidence-based nursing?, in: Ellis, P. and Standing, M. (eds.) Evidence-based practice in nursing. 4th ed. London: SAGE Publishing Ltd.

[7] United Nations. (2021) International day of human space flight 12 April. [online]. New York: United Nations. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/observances/human-spaceflight-day [Accessed 01 March 2021].

[8] United Nations. (2021) Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 7 April 2011. [online]. New York: United Nations. Available at: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N10/528/80/PDF/N1052880.pdf?OpenElement [Accessed 01 March 2021].

[9] Groemer, G., Gruber, S., Uebermasser, S., Soucek, A., Lalla, E., Lousada, J., Sams, S., Seilora, N., Garnitschnig, S., Sattler, B. and Such, P. (2020) The AMADEE-18 Mars analog expedition in the Dhofar region of Oman, Astrobiology, 20, pp. 1276-1286.

[10] Behar, J., Liu, C., Kotzen, K., Tsutsui, K., Corino, V., Singh, J., Pimentel, M., Warrick, P., Zaunseder, S., Andreotti, F., Sebag, S., Kopanitsa, G., McSharry, P., Karlen, W., Karmaker, C. and Clifford, D. (2020) Remote health diagnosis and monitoring in the time of COVID-19,  Physiological Measurement, 41, article number 10TR01.