The estimates are based on cosmic-radiation measurements made on the way to Mars by the Mars radiation environment experiment, an instrument on NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft, plus information about Mars' surface elevations from the laser altimeter instrument on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor. The areas of Mars expected to have least radiation are where elevation is lowest, because those areas have more atmosphere above them to block out some of the radiation. Earth's thick atmosphere shields us from most cosmic radiation, but Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth does.
Colors in the map refer to the estimated average number of times per year each cell nucleus in a human there would be hit by a high-energy cosmic ray particle. The range is generally from two hits (color-coded green), a moderate risk level, to eight hits (coded red), a high risk level.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor missions for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington D.C. The Mars radiation environment experiment was developed by NASA's Johnson Space Center. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, is the prime contractor for Odyssey, and developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.