An instrument onboard NASA’s Mars-bound Curiosity rover has begun monitoring space radiation during its eight-month trip to the red planet, the U.S space agency said Dec. 14.

The instrument, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), monitors high-energy atomic and subatomic particles from the sun, distant supernovas and other sources. The rover also will monitor radiation on the martian surface after it lands in August. NASA said the research will aid in planning human missions to Mars.

“RAD is serving as a proxy for an astronaut inside the spacecraft on its way to Mars,” Don Hassler, RAD’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement. “The instrument is deep inside the spacecraft, the way an astronaut would be. Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars.”

NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission launched Nov. 26 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

As of Dec. 14, the spacecraft had covered more than 50 million kilometers of its 567-million kilometer trip to Mars. NASA said the spacecraft’s first trajectory correction maneuver is planned for mid-January.