Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan

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The science of The Martian

Posted: October 1, 2015

The science of The Martian

In a new video from MConneX, Climate & Space and SPRL 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.

These 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.

“I think dust is going to be a big problem in the exploration of Mars,” says Professor Nilton Renno, 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.

“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 (SPRL), a division of XTRM Labs.

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 SPRL. 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.

To watch the video, please visit YouTube or click the box below.

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