What to do when alone on Mars? (Image: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation)
Astronaut Mark Watney is left alone on Mars when an explosion forces his crewmates to abandon the planet. To survive, the Martian of Ridley Scott’s new film must push NASA’s innovate-and-improvise philosophy further than ever before. Or as he puts it, “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
At New Scientist, we have a long history of– so we can only applaud Watney’s never-say-die spirit and almost genius use of science to solve problems. Here, as a spoiler-lite companion to enjoying , we offer our own thoughts on the science of survival on Mars.
1. Break down your problem into chunks
Watney clearly has. Played by Matt Damon, who has bags of fun with the role, he knows that to tackle an apparently insurmountable problem you have to break it into manageable chunks. In this he reminds me of in Touching the Void, who survived a horrific accident in the Peruvian Andes by taking it one step at a time.
The film, like the book by Andy Weir, is not interested in theof being in space, let alone being 225 million kilometres from any other human. This story is about engineering and improvising your way out of trouble, so we’ll gloss over the psychology too.
NASA, of course, has a fine record in conducting emergency space repairs. The most famous example – and Weir’s inspiration for the book – came when an oxygen tank exploded onduring NASA’s fifth crewed mission to the moon, but there are . Watney, though facing the agency’s worst nightmare, embodies its greatest strengths. Written and meticulously researched without help from NASA, the book and film have won the agency over for their portrayals of how it operates.
2. Check the weather
The crisis in The Martian happens because a monstrous sandstorm threatens to blow over the rocket that the crew intends to use to get home. In real life, this is unlikely because– only 1 per cent the density of Earth’s. “If you imagine the most unusually high winds you can for Mars, you’re still talking about something that produces a force comparable to a fresh breeze on Earth,” says planetary scientist at Hampton University, Virginia. “Almost knocking down a rocket strains credulity.”
That didn’t spoil the movie for me, by the way. But dust storms on Mars can still be dangerous: they impair visibility and, crucially, reduce your ability to harvest solar energy. This has been a, so Watney has to keep his solar panels clean of dust.
Some commentators are concerned about the exposure to cosmic radiation that Watney faces. Mars doesn’t have much of a magnetic field, but its thin atmosphere does provide protection from radiation,. It’s the long where exposure to radiation does the damage. “Being on the surface of Mars is better for that than interplanetary transport,” says Kevin Fong of University College London, who works on space medicine. “There are plenty of places to hide, and the planet is effectively a radiation shield from the sun when it’s between you and that source.”
3. Air to breathe, water to drink
Watney relies on histo produce oxygen. The mission, set in 2035, probably builds on technology developed for NASA’s next trip to the Red Planet, the Mars 2020 rover. That mission will use equipment that .
But Watney needs more water than he has left after the storm. Because he’s a capable science hero, he figures out how to extract hydrogen from the hydrazine in rocket fuel to make more water. I’d say don’t try this at home, but.
Recently, however, the Curiosity rover has found a possible waywithout the risk of blowing yourself up.
4. Get growing
Alone on Mars, Watney is not being arrogant when he calls himself the greatest botanist on the planet. But growing plants on Mars presents particular challenges. First, the. To get around that, you need to grow them indoors under artificial light. This will also protect them from the sub-zero temperatures on the surface.
Then there’s the soil. In 2008, thefound that samples on , including magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride. Scientists have for years been to study how they might grow things in it. Watney fertilises his garden using his faecal waste.
Martian plants would need special care (Image: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation)
will probably require genetically modified versions of Earth varieties to . But Watney makes do with normal Earth potatoes and vitamin pills. Let’s be generous and assume the pills also contain protein – one cannot survive on spuds and vitamins alone.
5. Rocket science
In the movie, the spacecraft used to transport crews between Earth and Mars – the Hermes – is powered by an ion engine. These are, and thus providing constant thrust.
Watney makes use of a nuclear power source to keep him warm. Space missions often use these radioisotope thermoelectric generators to convert the heat produced when a lump of plutonium decays into electricity.
There’s lots more science –, , and the challenges of making , to name a few.
So will Watney make it? You can, but it’s also worth reading Weir’s book to marvel at just how much science he explores in this tale of extraordinary endeavour.
Like this? Read our– on release in the UK from 30 September and in the US from 2 October
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