NASA Reveals Nine Real-Life Space Technologies in The Martian

Wednesday, 19 August 2015 - 11:34AM
Space
Science of Sci-Fi
Mars
Wednesday, 19 August 2015 - 11:34AM
NASA Reveals Nine Real-Life Space Technologies in The Martian
The Martian has been hailed as one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi novels in recent memory, and the film adaptation looks to be no different, as NASA is officially consulting on the science of the film. Although The Martian takes place in the near future, many of the technologies depicted already exist in some form, and NASA has just revealed that several of the technologies that are technically speculative are already in the works.

Opening quote
"The Martian merges the fictional and factual narratives about Mars, building upon the work NASA and others have done exploring Mars and moving it forward into the 2030s, when NASA astronauts are regularly traveling to Mars and living on the surface to explore," NASA said in a statement. "Although the action takes place 20 years in the future, NASA is already developing many of the technologies that appear in the film."
Closing quote




Here are nine technologies in the book and film that, according to NASA, are true to real life:

The Hab


Opening quote
"Future astronauts who land on Mars will need such a home to avoid spending their Martian sols lying on the dust in a spacesuit."
Closing quote


In The Martian, Matt Damon's Mark Watney spends much of his time in a habitation module, called Hab, which provides life support, shelter, and a means to grow food (more on that later). NASA claims that a real-life Mars mission would include a very similar habitat, and compares the Hab to the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), a self-contained environment used to simulate a space habitat during astronaut training.

Space Farming


In The Martian, Mark Watney is forced to "science the shit out of this," and grow potatoes as his main crop on Mars. We haven't yet grown space potatoes, but the farming part is very real, as ISS astronauts just ate the first space-grown lettuce for the first time

Opening quote
"This is a huge step in space farming, and NASA is looking to expand the amount and type of crops to help meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts on Mars," said NASA.
Closing quote


Water




Mark Watney and the rest of the Ares 3 crew don't let a drop of water go to waste. While on Mars, Watney's primary source of water is burning hydrazine, but he also uses filtration methods in order to conserve water in other fluids, including his own excrement. According to NASA, water recovery is similarly a priority on the ISS, with "no drop of sweat, tears, or even urine go[ing] to waste." They are also doing further research on more efficient water recovery methods, so future space exploration missions are not quite as dependent on resupply missions from Earth.

Oxygenator


Mark Watney uses a system called the "oxygenator" in order to generate oxygen in Mars's anoxic atmosphere using the carbon dioxide from the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) fuel generator. Similarly, the ISS uses an oxygen generator that uses electrolysis to split water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen, and NASA is working on further oxygen recovery methods for a mission to Mars.

Mars Spacesuit


Opening quote
"Mark Watney spends large portions of his Martian sols working in a spacesuit. He ends up having to perform some long treks on the surface, so his suit has to be flexible, comfortable, and reliable. NASA is currently developing the technologies to build a spacesuit that would be used on Mars. Engineers consider everything from traversing the Martian landscape to picking up rock samples."
Closing quote


"Flexible" is the key term, and that's the innovation that NASA is looking to make with their new Z-2 spacesuit, which could possibly serve astronauts on a mission to Mars. The Z-2 prototypes are much more flexible than previous spacesuits, and allow for more fluid joint movement, which helps to prevent potentially serious injuries and is conducive to performing more sensitive tasks. 

Modified Mars Rovers


In a pivotal moment in the book/film, Watney modifies a Mars rover in order to help him survive, including the addition of solar cells and an extra battery. According to NASA, state-of-the-art Mars rovers that are currently being developed, such as the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV), will be versatile enough to account for almost any situation an astronaut could encounter:

Opening quote
"The MMSEV has been used in NASA's analog mission projects to help solve problems that the agency is aware of and to reveal some that may be hidden. The technologies are developed to be versatile enough to support missions to an asteroid, Mars, its moons and other missions in the future."
Closing quote


Ion Propulsion


The Hermes spacecraft in The Martian uses ion propulsion, which is already a reality. Ion propulsion works by electrically charging particles of gases like argon or xenon into ions, and then creating thrust by pushing the ions out at extremely high speeds. The Dawn spacecraft, which recently achieved orbit around Ceres for the first time, uses ion propulsion, and NASA claims that it is the future of space travel:

Opening quote
"The spacecraft experiences a force similar to that of a gentle breeze, but by continuously accelerating for several years, celestial vessels can reach phenomenal speeds. Ion propulsion also allows the spacecraft to change its orbit multiple times, then break away and head for another distant world."
Closing quote


Solar Power


The Hermes spacecraft also uses solar arrays for power, very similar to the ISS:

Opening quote
"On the International Space Station, four sets of solar arrays generate 84 to 120 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power more than 40 homes. The station doesn't need all that power, but the redundancy helps mitigate risk in case of a failure."
Closing quote


Nuclear Power


NASA has used Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) in order to generate power ever since the Apollo missions, and continues to do so on Mars rovers like Curiosity and the upcoming 2020 rover. RTGs function as batteries by converting the radioactive decay of plutonium into electrical power, and can be used safely, as is demonstrated in The Martian:

Opening quote
"In The Martian, the crew buries the plutonium-based RTG power source for the Mars Ascent Vehicle far away from the Hab in case of radioactive leakage. To prevent any leak, as suggested in the movie, Plutonium-238 has several layers of strong, advanced materials that protect against release even in severe accidents."
Closing quote


Any power source for a future Mars mission will need all the power it can get, and so will likely use a mixture of solar power, nuclear fission, RTGs, and fuel cells.
Science
NASA
Space
Science of Sci-Fi
Mars

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