The film Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, boasts about its accuracy in showing details of a mission to Mars. How believable is the movie Martian from the standpoint of science?
Astrophysicist Alexei Varenikov next to the rover Curiosity
Russian astrophysicist Alexei Varenikov, who participated in the management team of the rover Curiosity, watched the movie and explained what is plausible and what is not, from the point of view of science.
Please note: the text below contains movie spoilers.
Photo from the archives of NASA
Landscape: Martian landscape in the movie looks rather close to reality. However, there are some nuances: for example, in the past few billion earth years to a large degree smoothed the Martian mountains. The film shows a beautiful vertical cliffs and walls of rocks — it is, in fact, a very rare occurrence on the Martian surface.
Verdict: fairly plausible.
Photo from the archives of NASA
Sunset: The sunsets in the movie are reddish-orange in color. However, the sunsets on Mars are depressingly greenish-blue because of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Storms and winds: Storms on Mars are seasonal, frequently occurring and thoroughly studied phenomena. In the movie storm serves to create dramatic plot twist. On Mars, where the atmospheric pressure is very low and the atmosphere is thin (like on top of a 20 km high mountain.) The wind is really strong there, but it does not blow objects away. The only unpleasantness is a small specks of sand that are flying at a speed of 100 meters per second. From this the lenses of rovers often sustain scratches. But Martian winds cannot send rocks flying in the air. Therefore, the antenna could not just come off and fly away blown by the wind. Also, the sky does not darken in a storm — because the atmosphere is rarefied the sky become red rather than dark.
Verdict: implausible. Tornadoes: Tornadoes is a fact of Martian climate. The so-called “dust devils” leave marks on the surface of the planet, visible on many images of Mars. In the movie the tornadoes are not quite as tall as in real life. On Mars, they can reach a height of 30 km. It is a pity that the movie doesn’t show the Martian snow. The snow really falls on Mars, however, it is not made of water but carbon dioxide (CO2). There exist amusing pictures from Vikings of carbonated drifting snow.
Verdict: plausible. Gravity: Gravity on Mars is slightly lower than on Earth — about 40% of the Earth’s gravity. At the beginning of the movie, to show the difference in gravity, the frames are barely slowed to achieve realistic effect.
Verdict: plausible.Radiation: Mars’s surface receives more radiation than the Earth’s but still blocks a considerable amount. Radiation exposure on the surface is 30 µSv per hour during solar minimum; during solar maximum, dosage equivalent of this exposure is reduced by the factor two (2). If the settlers spend on average three hours every three days outside the habitat, their individual exposure adds up to 11 mSv per year.
Verdict: Largely implausible.Living Quarters: The base is realistic. It would have been more realistic if the structure were buried 2-3 meters into the ground to protect from radiation. On the other hand, NASA is constantly developing new high-tech materials (that is why the American “machines” are so expensive).
Verdict: plausible.Water, oxygen production and potatoes growing: I’m not a biologist, but growing of potatoes as shown in the movie is quite believable. The soil on Mars contains iron oxide, which is rust. In fact, the same sand can be found, for example, in the Death Valley, USA. Oxygen for breathing was derived by using closed-cycle generator — they are very effective and are used now quite extensively.
Verdict: plausible.The total loss of communication with Earth: Usually NASA duplicates channels of communication, and even the failure of the two of them shouldn’t necessarily lead to a complete loss of contact with the mother-planet. But in reality anything could happen, including damage to the antenna. Should the loss of communication happen, the astronaut might have to act in much the same manner, if he or she knows what to do, which is go straight into the hexadecimal code. The programming at NASA, by the way, done mostly in assembly language.
Verdict: plausible.NASA Offices: Very believably depicted. All these brilliant “lunatics” who “calculate trajectory” etc, actually work in this manner. No matter where or how you live or how you look like, the important thing is what you can do and how you do it. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is one of the best places on earth to be a scientist.