The shielding effect of small-scale martian surface geometry on ultraviolet flux

J. E. Moores, P. H. Smith, R. Tanner, A. C. Schuerger, K. J. Venkateswaran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


The atmosphere of Mars does little to attenuate incoming ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Large amounts of UV radiation sterilize the hardiest of terrestrial organisms within minutes, and chemically alter the soil such that organic molecules at or near the surface are rapidly destroyed. Thus the survival of any putative martian life near the surface depends to a large extent on how much UV radiation it receives. Variations in small-scale geometry of the surface such as pits, trenches, flat faces and overhangs can have a significant effect on the incident UV flux and may create "safe havens" for organisms and organic molecules. In order to examine this effect, a 1-D radiative transfer sky model with 836 meshed points (plus the Sun) was developed which includes both diffuse and direct components of the surface irradiance. This model derives the variation of UV flux with latitude and an object's Geometric Shielding Ratio (a ratio which describes the geometry of each situation). The best protection is offered by overhangs with flux reduced to a factor of 1.8 ± 0.2 × 10-5 of the unprotected value, a reduction which does not vary significantly by latitude. Pits and cracks are less effective with a reduction in UV flux of only up to 4.5 ± 0.5 × 10-3 for the modeled scenarios; however, they are more effective for the same geometric shielding ratio than overhangs at high latitudes due to the low height of the Sun in the sky. Lastly, polar faces of rocks have the least effective shielding geometry with at most a 1.1 ± 0.1 × 10-1 reduction in UV flux. Polar faces of rocks are most effective at mid latitudes where the Sun is never directly overhead, as at tropical latitudes, and never exposes the back of the rock, as at polar latitudes. In the most favorable cases, UV flux is sufficiently reduced such that organic in-fall could accumulate beneath overhanging surfaces and in pits and cracks. As well, hardy terrestrial microorganisms such as Bacillus pumilus could persist for up to 100 sols on the outer surfaces of typical spacecraft or several tens of martian years in the most shielded surface niches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)417-433
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 15 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Astrobiology
  • Mars
  • Photochemistry
  • Radiative transfer
  • surface

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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