The northern and southern lights (aurora borealis and aurora australis) splash colorful lights onto the sky, aweing spectators; but this display is simply the result of a diverse distribution of charged particles streaming into the atmosphere at high speeds. The particles hit the atoms and molecules high above the Earth, exciting electrons to higher energy levels. As the electrons decay back to their original state they emit light with colors spanning the rainbow. While providing a grand light show, the northern and southern lights also demonstrate one of the remarkable ways that Earth represents a pleasant and easy place for life to thrive.

These lights happen at the North and South Poles because the planet’s magnetic field directs the particles away from the equator toward the poles. Since the atmosphere absorbs most of the particles before they strike the surface, Earth’s inhabitants are not subject to high levels of radiation pervading the universe. NASA launched the Curiosity Rover on Mars recently, and so far, scientists have been able to measure how much radiation astronauts traveling to Mars would encounter. It turns out that the level of radiation on Mars would pose significant dangers to humans and other advanced organisms.

A standard trip to Mars requires a roughly 30-month commitment. The outgoing and return trips each take 180 days (six months) to complete. The astronaut would also have to reside on the surface of Mars for 500 days (16 months) so that Earth and Mars get to favorable locations in their orbits. During the Curiosity Rover’s flight to Mars, its instruments found radiation doses of 331 mSv (millisievert). Once the rover landed on Mars, scientists were also able to estimate that 500 days on the surface would add another 320 mSv, for a total exposure of roughly 1 Sv for the round trip.1 For comparison, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission states that someone exposed to 5 Sv all at once will likely die if left untreated. Although the radiation exposure would be spread out over a two-and-a-half year period, Martian astronauts would still be exposed to 20 percent of a lethal dose.

Even more worrisome is the type of radiation encountered. Specifically, the highly energetic, high atomic number charged particles that comprise the galactic cosmic radiation (that Earth’s atmosphere channels off to the poles) are incredibly effective in causing cancer (and cancers with high mortality rates). Although the exposure for a Martian trip exceeds NASA’s safety limits, scientists are investigating ways to mitigate the radiation effects. For example, while on Mars, the astronauts could remain underground where the soil provides a shield against radiation. Perhaps more importantly, in learning to mitigate the effects of radiation for space travel, scientists may learn how to better treat cancer patients inhabiting Earth!

The desire to explore our neighboring planet reveals two important facts. First, as we understand the risks of traveling to Mars, we also learn how to better care for all of humanity. Second, the dangers of long-term space travel show the phenomenal capacity of Earth to support life. Occasionally, we get to see spectacular displays of light, reminding us of these two important points.

Subjects: Astronomy, Mars

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About The Author

Jeff Zweerink

Since my earliest memories, science and the Christian faith have featured prominently in my life - but I struggled when my scientific studies seemed to collide with my early biblical training. My first contact with RTB came when I heard Hugh Ross speak at Iowa State University. It was the first time I realized it was possible to do professional work incorporating both my love of science and my desire to serve God. I knew RTB's ministry was something I was called to be a part of. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. My passion at RTB is helping Christians see how powerful a tool science is to declare God's glory and helping scientists understand how the established scientific discoveries demonstrate the legitimacy and rationality of the Christian faith. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Jeff Zweerink thought he would follow in his father's footsteps as a chemistry professor until a high school teacher piqued his interest in physics. Jeff pursued a BS in physics and a PhD in astrophysics at Iowa State University (ISU), where he focused his study on gamma rays - messengers from distant black holes and neutron stars. Upon completing his education, Jeff taught at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Postdoctoral research took him to the West Coast, to the University of California, Riverside, and eventually to a research faculty position at UCLA. He has conducted research using STACEE and VERITAS gamma-ray telescopes, and currently works on GAPS, a balloon experiment seeking to detect dark matter. A Christian from childhood, Jeff desired to understand how the worlds of science and Scripture integrate. He struggled when his scientific studies seemed to collide with his early biblical training. While an undergrad at ISU, Jeff heard Hugh Ross speak and learned of Reasons to Believe (RTB) and its ministry of reconciliation - tearing down the presumed barriers between science and faith and introducing people to their personal Creator. Jeff knew this was something he was called to be a part of. Today, as a research scholar at RTB, Jeff speaks at churches, youth groups, universities, and professional groups around the country, encouraging people to consider the truth of Scripture and how it connects with the evidence of science. His involvement with RTB grows from an enthusiasm for helping others bridge the perceived science-faith gap. He seeks to assist others in avoiding the difficulties he experienced. Jeff is author of Who's Afraid of the Multiverse? and coauthor of more than 30 journal articles, as well as numerous conference proceedings. He still serves part-time on the physics and astronomy research faculty at UCLA. He directs RTB's online learning programs, Reasons Institute and Reasons Academy, and also contributes to the ministry's podcasts and daily blog, Today's New Reason to Believe. When he isn’t participating in science-faith apologetics Jeff enjoys fishing, camping, and working on home improvement projects. An enthusiastic sports fan, he coaches his children's teams and challenges his RTB colleagues in fantasy football. He roots for the Kansas City Chiefs and for NASCAR's Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, live in Southern California with their five children.

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