Michigan Engineering researchers check the science behind The Martian, the upcoming film adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling sci-fi thriller about an astronaut left behind on the Red Planet. U-M engineers and scientists discuss: how bad the dust storms really are on Mars, how it might be possible to grow food there, and how fast Earth could send a rescue mission.
Dust storms: “I think dust is going to be a big problem in the exploration of Mars,” says Nilton Renno, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering who has studied dust on Mars and Earth. “The winds can pick up a lot of dust. Noon on Mars can be almost as dark as midnight.” However, he contends that Martian storms don’t occur as often as the book says they do.
Growing plants: “Mars is an extremely harsh environment with very cold temperatures and because the atmosphere is so thin and there’s no magnetic field on the whole planet, it’s constantly bombarded by radiation from the sun,” says Ryan Miller, lead engineer in research at U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab, a division of XTRM Labs. Miller says Watney’s greenhouse-like enclosure must have blocked this radiation. He also discusses the soil composition. Miller and others at XTRM Labs are working on an instrument for ESA’s ExoMars rover, set to launch in 2020. The craft will be designed to drill deeper into the soil than other rovers to look for more signs of organics or life.
Rescue mission: Earth and Mars are only relatively close once every 22 months. The quickest we could perform a rescue today would be 6-8 months, says Jon Van Noord, lead mechanical engineer at U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab, a division of XTRM Labs. On one hand, the “ion propulsion” discussed in the story isn’t as futurustic as it sounds. But on the other hand, to generate the amount of force you’d need to set a rocket into motion using ion propulsion, “we’d have to have a fictional nuclear reactor that’s beyond what we currently have,” Van Noord said.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense