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Space Radiation and the VSE, the 2005 report of the NRC

TaggedCoding, Space

Still looking for MARIE (the 2001 MArtian Radiation envIronment Experiment) and the public release of information on Space and Mars Radiation directly related to Humans higher than LEO.

I've found something odd, which appears to be the name of the game when it comes to MARIE, in the 2006-released NRC report "Space Radiation Hazards and the Vision for Space Exploration, Report of a Workshop".

This 88 page book which you can buy from Amazon or download "free for Personal Use Only" from the National Academies Press is supposedly all that we publically knew concerning Space Radiation up to the 2005 Wintergreen Workshop. It is almost as tedious as other NRC reports but worth the effort if only to find out that in decades of human "Space flight" our country really hadn't (hasn't?) done a whole heck of a lot to figure out exactly what Hazards are out there or how to get around them.

Even the writers seem astonished by this.

First off though... MARIE. 


You'll remember that according to the BIS Spaceflight Magazine article the MARIE experiment on the 2001 Odyssey spacecraft was a huge deal because of it being the "first experiment sent to Mars specifically to prepare for human missions."   With this NRC report coming only a few years after other sources implied that MARIE had successfully sent a load of data back to Earth, you might think that MARIE would be a cornerstone of the entire book. 

However, MARIE is only mentioned two and a half times, twice in the appendix and "half" on page 42 in a bullet of 'what we might want to check maybe' in the main text section on Solar and Space Physics Support Areas for the Future:



"Analyze data from Mars Radiation Environment Satellite"  Yeah, that might be worth doing.  ;-)

You're right, they didn't get the name of the experiment correct and didn't even parenthetically say the acronym, so anyone skimming or searching the pdf would likely have missed it.  That's all there is in the entire main text, in a book specifically about what that one and only Human-focused radiation experiment was supposedly all about. 

The other two times MARIE comes up are in the last and second to last subsections of the appendix.  The first is in the Working Group E Dosimetry section:


"Unmanned missions beyond LEO, such as the Interplanetary Monitoring Plantform series of missions, the ACE mission at the L1 point, and the recent Odyssey mission to Mars, have at times also carried instruments, such as the Mars Radiation Environment Experient (MARIE) detector, that have recorded particle fluxes and their associated doses.  The latter has recently made measurements in martian orbit, but no measurements of doses or particle fluxes on the surface of Mars exist at present."


That paragraph can be linked to the related SRAG (Space Radiation Analysis Group at Johnson) bullet in the image above, where we saw that analyzing the data from MARIE might be a good idea.  It is interesting that the same action is not advised in this section of the appendix, instead the related subsection of bullets for action includes only a point to "Obtain U.S. access to particle and dose data from missions conducted by other countries that enable addressing the needs mentioned previously."  MARIE data is not included in the action points for the targetted working group.

The second and last time Marie is mentioned is in the introduction to  the very last section of the appendix "Reports of Working Groups." That section, "Working Group F, Effects on Instruments, Spacecraft and Communications" starts with this:


"During the intense and long lasting solar storms in October and November 2003, the so-called Halloween Storms, the MARIE experiment was permanently lost (Barber and Mahmot, 2004).  Ironically, the purpose of the MARIE experiment was to understand and characterize the radiation environment, not only near Mars and on its surface but also in the interplanetary space between Earth and Mars, in order to plan for future manned spacecraft and missions to Mars.  It is almost always difficult to determine with certainty the cause of a spacecraft or instrument failure; however, in addition to the MARIE instrument, a number of other spacecraft instruments in near-Earth space suffered during the Halloween Storms.  Fortunately humans were not dependant on the operation of this instrument, but when humans venture again to the Moon and for the first time on the long voyage to Mars, it will be essential to ensure that difficulties with instruments, spacecraft and communications do not threaten mission success and human lives. Working Group F addressed these issues:..."


The section is not about data, it is about effects of radiation on hardware so their mention of MARIE is used as an example of damage that can be caused by events. But I do want to bring up a couple of thoughts about the way that that paragraph was written; this is maybe an old copywriter's nit picking but effective copywriting is the key to getting people to do what you want so just think about these points and how they could influence readers in regards to the whole scope of the report:

1) "Fortunately humans were not dependant on the operation of this instrument"  Really?  Well, there were no humans aboard Odyssey so I guess that is true in once sense but if the BIS article and press releases from the time of the experiment are correct in heralding MARIE as the "first experiment sent to Mars specifically to prepare for human missions" then one could just as easily say that any and all future beyond-LEO projects with Humans were extremely dependant on the operation of this unit.  

2) We're told here that MARIE was permanently lost in late 2003 and, to me, the flow of the paragraph gives a strong inference that it was lost along with other items while still "in near-Earth space."  When I read it that is the message I got, I had to re-read it and remember the Odyssey timeline to pick it apart and separate MARIE from the other "near-Earth spacecraft".  As written, as copy, MARIE is being lumped together with systems millions of miles away and appears to be presented as stillborne rather than as a successful experiment through cruise and target phases. 

Let's review: Odyssey left Earth April 7th 2001, flawlessly cruised until Mars Orbit Insertion on October 24th, 2001, finished its three phase Aerobraking/Orbit correction in January 2002 and successfully did its on-orbit 917 Earthday mapping mission from February 2002 to August 2004 and then moved into its extended relay and rover support phase.  By the official Odyssey timetime, MARIE's termination in October 2003 was nowhere near "near-Earth" at the time of the Halloween Storms.  It was not only finished with the cruise phase data collection and downloads but also done wth a significant amount of on-orbit survey time. 

According to the Mars Odyssey Mission Summary [Saunders, Badhwar, et al, a downright FACINATING book] the MARIE system did have a "heartbeat loss" during cruise but that issue started several months into the interplanetary segment with the only data loss from that operational period being in the two months prior to arriving at Mars.  Once the mapping phase of the mission began, MARIE was brought back online and page 16 of the finalized 2003 summary was very specific about its abilities:

"A major success story at the start of the mapping was the recovery of the MARIE instrument. MARIE experienced an apparent loss of "heartbeat" in August [2001], two months before arrival.  At that time attempts to revive MARIE were unsuccessful.  Once the mapping orbit was achieved, more extensive troubleshooting of the MARIE instrument began.  Memory dumps were performed to determine the last states of the instrument.  After that, MARIE's heartbeat was re-established on March 6th 2002, and MARIE started returning science data from Mars orbit.  The instrument has continued to return science data since then, and its prognosis for a long life is good."

As a confirmation, over at the JPL MARIE overview we read:

"The instrument, with a 68-degree field of view, collected data during Odyssey's cruise from Earth to Mars. It stored large amounts of data for downlink whenever possible, and operated in orbit around Mars until a large solar event bombarded the Odyssey spacecraft on October 28, 2003."

That stuff is past-tensed, that is what the experiment payload called MARIE did

Were the Wintergreen people, brought together from some of the most respectable universities, corporations and thinktanks in the United States, all told a different story about MARIE for the goals of the meetings?  These folks are all in the biz, so they should have known the recent Odyssey experiments better.  Did they (or the workshop organizers) want to handicap the working groups results or was the original hype over the experiment (and the BIS article's mentions) incorrect and the experiment wasn't really all that important to Human Spaceflight after all... or... I don't know.  This twists my noodle ;-).

What IS the deal with the lack of straight-forward MARIE information? 

That's enough of that for today.  Obviously we'll just have to keep keep looking for MARIE.  Let's try to ignore it for now and see what else is in the report.


The core of the book is a redundant almost to the point of annoyance dead-horse beating of the basics of Solar Energy Particle (SEP) and Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR) space weather.  Over and over you read that one minimizes the other and both come in cycles that are "not fully understood".  The repetition of the space weather basics and lack of good modeling totally made me wish I was a fluid dynamics person :).

Further,  we are told that we do have the basic tools in place to understand both major space weather elements but the physics community has never thought to ask Human-related questions and the Human Spaceflight crowd has never thought to ask the phycisists to re-purpose or even slightly tweak their existing data-collecting assets to peek into the sections of the observable and observed spectra known to have effects on living tissue. 

That lightbulb comes up repeatedly in the main text of the report and it appears to have been the biggest result of getting the two groups together for the Wintergreeen Workshops.  That's a good thing, a sad thing to just be figuring out decades after it could have helped the Human program at a lower cost than playing catchup but better late than never.

An interesting point popped up early on in the report and was never exactly revisited.  It was a kind of rhetorical question about how NASA has rules, laws actually, for radiation shielding that are still based on brute force stoppage of worst case dose values originally determined by studying survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  The point of the question was that perhaps that dogma is not the correct path.  I liked that and wished that that one of the working groups had been put on it. 


"The large uncertainties that exist at present increase the cost of missions owing to the large safety margins required as a consequence, and they also limit the ability to judge risk mitigation methods, such as improvements in shielding or biological countermeasures effectiveness. Operational measures and radiation shielding are currently the main means of reducing radiation risk; improved biological markers have the potential to enable improved early diagnostics; the discovery of means of biological prevention and intervention may lead to significantly more powerful methods to overcome the biological consequence of exposure to radiation, including better radioprotection.

Ultimately, the establishment of limits is complicated by several factors.  Among these is that scientists cannot predict all the significant risks; radiation as the cause of some health effects, especially at moderate doses, is only conjectured." [page 19]


Hindsight is 20/20 but from an outsider's point of view ... I just can't get past that the lack of work on bringing together Space and Solar Physicists with Human Spaceflight goals should have been more obvious years prior to these official meetings.  I wish I had never read the words that McLucas wrote in 1993, because no matter how I fight it they just keep making sense...

“Some critics of manned space flight on Capital Hill are said to be using their influence
to hold down the amount of research on this subject [of Human-affecting radiation in Space];
this could be an indirect way of slowing the pace of flights to the moon and Mars.”

Space Commerce, Materials Processing by Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. John L. McLucas


The Bush administraion Vision For Space Exploration is a dead thing.  The last of the over-contracted hardware is falling off of life support but, really, the everybody-gets-some cost killed it long ago.  But this report is still valid and still should be read by folks who hope for a renewed beyond-LEO Human Spaceflight endeavor.  Don't let my personal quest for MARIE take too much away from it... there are good lessons here that we should not have to re-learn all over again.

As a matter of fact, reading this report got me excited about something that I'd never much considered before:  the effects of Radiation on not only Human tissue but also the tools that those Human will have to use.  I guess I can't demand perfect foresight for these good people when I, a person whose own life has been in hardware and software for decades, had somehow missed the obvious cool stuff related to how the heck I would harden my products so that they would be bulletproof if used in Space.

That is a cool thing... could a Windows PC and something akin to Lightswitch be used in a spacecraft? Vocal geeks always say no to Windows but I know from my reading so far just on MARIE that off the shelf Intel CPUs and standard PC cards were routinely sent as payloads... so why not general purpose OSes too?  And what else could support the RAD that an ad-hoc situation might require?  Would the best UI for an astronaut still be metal flip switches or more like the touchscreen apps shown in the "Defying Gravity" series... if the latter then what OS and gear really would be required to survive massive CMEs and what type of "wifi" could keep mission critical remote apps communicating with their server and talking back to NOAA's realtime monitoring offices even during a minor SEP event.  The report didn't actually get into much of that minutia, but it started me thinking a lot about it. So for that alone, this was a report worth reading.  Although MITers aren't ever going to consider a redmondy option, I think it's time to re-read Digital Apollo, now armed with a real set of questions. Hmmmm.


Next up on my stack... the 2008 VSE NRC report "Managing Space Radiation Risk in the New Era of Space Exploration"

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