The upcoming movie about a NASA astronaut left for dead on Mars in the 2030s features a number of technologies NASA says are currently under development.
NASA said the book and the movie, “The Martian,” merges fictional and factual chronicles about Mars, building upon the work NASA and others have done exploring Mars and moving it into a future where NASA astronauts are regularly traveling to the red planet to live and explore.
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Indeed, as Matt Damon, who plays the central character Mark Watney in the movie says: “I have to make water and grow food on a planet where nothing grows” to basically stretch a couple months worth of food and supplies into four years becomes a modern day MacGyver in a spacesuit and uses some amazing technologies to try to survive.
NASA says it has nine of the technologies Watney employs under development already.
For example, on the surface of Mars, Watney spends a significant amount of time in the habitation module -- the Hab. Future astronauts who land on Mars will need such a home to avoid spending their Martian sols lying on the dust in a spacesuit. NASA says at its Johnson Space Center, crews now train for long-duration deep space missions in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA).
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NASA says HERA is a self-contained environment that simulates a deep-space habit. The two-story habitat is complete with living quarters, workspaces, a hygiene module and a simulated airlock. Within the module, test subjects conduct operational tasks, complete payload objectives and live together for 14 days (soon planned to increase to up to 60 days), simulating future missions in the isolated environment. This research provides valuable data in human factors, behavioral health and countermeasures to help further NASA’s understanding on how to conduct deep space operations, the agency stated.
Other research, according to NASA, featured prominently in the movie includes:
- Watney turns the Hab into a self-sustaining farm making potatoes the first Martian staple. Today, in low-Earth orbit, lettuce is the most abundant crop in space, NASA said. Aboard the International Space Station, Veggie is a deployable fresh-food production system. Using red, blue, and green lights, Veggie helps plants grow in pillows, small bags with a wicking surface containing media and fertilizer, to be harvested by astronauts. In 2014, astronauts used the system to grow “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce and just recently sampled this space-grown crop for the first time. This is a huge step in space farming, and NASA said it is looking to expand the amount and type of crops to help meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts on Mars.
- There are no lakes, river or oceans on the surface of Mars, and sending water from Earth would take more than nine months. Astronauts on Mars must be able to create their own water supply. In ‘The Martin,’ Ares 3 crew does not waste a drop on Mars with their water reclaimer, and Watney needs to use his ingenuity to come up with some peculiar ways to stay hydrated and ensure his survival on the Red Planet, NASA said. On the International Space Station, no drop of sweat, tears, or even urine goes to waste. The Environmental Control and Life Support System recovers and recycles water from everywhere: urine, hand washing, oral hygiene, and other sources. Through the Water Recovery System, water is reclaimed and filtered, ready for consumption. One astronaut simply put it, “Yesterday’s coffee turns into tomorrow’s coffee.”
- On Mars, Watney can’t just step outside for a breath of fresh air To survive, he has to carry his own supply of oxygen everywhere he goes. But first he has to make it. In his Hab he uses the “oxygenator,” a system that generates oxygen using the carbon dioxide from the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) fuel generator. On the International Space Station, the astronauts and cosmonauts have the Oxygen Generation System, which reprocesses the atmosphere of the spacecraft to continuously provide breathable air efficiently and sustainably. The system produces oxygen through a process called electrolysis, which splits water molecules into their component oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, while the hydrogen is either discarded into space or fed into the Sabatier System, which creates water from the remaining byproducts in the station's atmosphere.
- Watney spends large portions of his Martian days known as sols, working in a spacesuit. NASA said he ends up having to perform some long treks on the surface, so his suit has to be flexible, comfortable, and reliable. NASA said 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. The Z-2 and Prototype eXploration Suit, NASA’s new prototype spacesuits, help solve unique problems to advance new technologies that will one day be used in a suit worn by the first humans to set foot on Mars. Each suit is meant to identify different technology gaps – features a spacesuit may be missing – to complete a mission. Spacesuit engineers explore the tradeoff between hard composite materials and fabrics to find a nice balance between durability and flexibility.
- The Hermes spacecraft in the book uses solar arrays for power, and Watney has to use solar panels in some unconventional ways to survive on Mars. On the International Space Station, four sets of solar arrays generate 84 to 120 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power more than 40 homes, NASA said. The station doesn’t need all that power, but the redundancy helps mitigate risk in case of a failure. The solar power system aboard the space station is very reliable, and has been providing power safely to the station since its first crew in 2000.
- In "The Martian," Watney uses his rover a ton and has to pimp the vehicle with some unorthodox modifications to help him survive. NASA says it is working to prepare for every encounter with the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle. 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. NASA’s MMSEV has helped address issues like range, rapid entry/exit and radiation protection.
- In “The Martian,” the Ares 3 crew lives aboard the Hermes spacecraft for months as they travel to and from the Red Planet, using ion propulsion as an efficient method of traversing through space for over 280 million miles. Ion propulsion works by electrically charging a gas such as argon or xenon and pushing out the ions at high speeds, about 200,000 mph. 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.
- For more than four decades, NASA has safely used Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) to provide electrical power for two dozen space missions, including Apollo missions to the Moon. Spacecraft such as the Mars rover Curiosity and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover use an updated, next-generation model for electrical power. RTGs are “space batteries” that convert heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into reliable electrical power. The RTG on Curiosity generates about 110 Watts of power or less – slightly more than an average light bulb uses. RTG power is featured prominently in the book.