9 real space technologies in The Martian

  • NASA's Human Exploration Research Analog Image credit: NASA
  • An artificial living habitat in The Martian. Image credit: Fox Movies
  • NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren harvests lettuce grown on board the ISS. Image credit: NASA
  • Astronaut Mark Watney plants potatoes. Image credit: Fox Movies
  • NASA's Z-2 prototype suit Image credit: NASA
  • Matt Damon plays astronaut Marc Watney in The Martian Image credit: Fox Movies
  • NASA's Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle Image credit: NASA
  • The Martian's rover Image credit: Fox Movies
Date:2 September 2015 Tags:, , ,

For many years humans have been fascinated with outer space. Mars in particular has taken a hold of our fantasies, whether in popular media or conspiracies. So it’s  only natural that the upcoming science-fiction film by Ridley Scott has been adapted from a novel by Andy Weir, titled The Martian.

The roots of The Martian are online. Weir wrote a series of blog posts about an astronaut stranded on Mars. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he  spoke about his aim to keep the technology in the story as close to existing technologies as he could, using online resources from NASA and Google Mars (Google Mars is an effort between NASA and Google to map the surface of Mars in the same style as Google Earth).

So here are nine technologies from The Martian that are real, as originally posted by NASA.

Warning: There might be spoilers! 🙂

1. The habitat

The main protagonist of The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney, has to spend a significant amount of time on the surface of the red planet after his crew leaves him behind. Watney then sets up a habitation module similar to NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analogue (HERA). HERA is a two-story habitat unit with four ports. Currently situated at the NASA Johnson Space Centre, HERA simulates the isolation, confinement and remote conditions of various deep-space exploration scenarios.

2. The plant farm

In The Martian, Watney turns a part of his habitat into a self-sustaining farm, planting potatoes as his staple. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) recently grew (and of course ate) their first crop of lettuce. Although all the food on the ISS is resupplied from Earth, technology is being pursued in the hope of enabling astronauts to farm fresh produce themselves to meet their nutritional needs.

3. Water recovery

Astronauts on the ISS do not waste a drop of water. In fact, they recycle sweat, urine and every drop of water used in hygiene through the on-board Water Recovery System. Similarly in the fictional work, the crew onboard the Ares 3 reclaim all the water they use; stranded Watney also comes up with ingenious, albeit peculiar, ways to stay hydrated.

4. Oxygen generation

As much as 96 % of the atmosphere on Mars consists of carbon dioxide, making it impossible for a human to breathe. In the book Watney uses his habitat’s “oxygenator” to create a portable oxygen supply. The oxygenator is similar to the Oxygen Generation System on the ISS. It reprocesses the atmosphere of the station, making it possible for astronauts to breathe continuously and effortlessly.

5. The Mars spacesuit

The cold surface of Mars makes it necessary for fictional explorers to wear a spacesuit, which is flexible and comfortable. NASA says it is developing technologies that would aid in building a spacesuit capable of traversing Mars and comfortable enough to pick up objects.

6. The roving vehicle

Much like NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle, the rover in The Martian makes it possible for Watney to explore the planet’s surface.

7. Ion propulsion

Ion propulsion is a method used to allow spacecraft to move through space, while conserving fuel. This method of propulsion works by electrically charging a gas and pushing out the ions at high speeds. As with the Ares 3 fictional work, NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft uses this type of propulsion. Launched in 2007, it is a means to study three planets in the asteroid belt.

8. Solar panels

NASA writes that there is no wind on Mars, and whereas astronauts can  carry only a limited amount of energy cells on a mission, solar panels are the best solution for energy. The ISS generates 84 to 120 kilowatts from four sets of solar arrays: enough energy to power 40 houses. In The Martian solar panels are used both on Mars and the spacecraft Hermes.

9. Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators or RTGs are batteries that convert heat from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into power. Although this technology is featured in The Martian, it is also used by the Curiosity rover, which is currently traversing the surface of Mars. Curiosity generates 110 Watts of electricity using RTGs.

Source: NASA