Real NASA Space Tech in 'The Martian': Photos
The upcoming movie features tech that NASA already has in the works.
Forget about the wonders of space and the philosophical implications of seeing Earth as a blue dot in a star-filled black sky. Astronaut Mark Watney, the lead character in "The Martian," a book by Andy Weir, is more concerned about staying alive, and for that there's nothing like good old-fashioned engineering and technical know-how. Which is why NASA is so excited about the upcoming debut of a film by the same name, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. Without giving away too much, the story revolves around Watney's trials and tribulations soloing on Mars after he is inadvertently left by his evacuating crewmates. The U.S. space agency, which is slowly moving toward a mid-2030s human expedition to Mars, is eager to connect the dots between its ongoing development efforts and engineering finesse the fictional Watney employs to boost his chances of survival. Here is a look at some Mars technologies currently under development.
Watney needs a place to shelter from the harsh climate and high radiation of Mars. Back on real Earth, engineers are testing a prototype deep-space habitat called HERA, short for Human Exploration Research Analog, that has living quarters, work space, a bathroom and a simulated airlock. So far, NASA has run Mars habitat simulations lasting two weeks. It plans to increase the experiments to 60 days, a small fraction of a crew's estimated year-long Mars stay.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station last month ate their first crop of space-grown lettuce. NASA says future Mars crews won't be able to depend solely on cargo ships from Earth and are counting on space gardens to fill the gap. "If we're ever going to go to to Mars someday -- and we will -- we're going to need a spacecraft that is much more sustainable ... Having the ability for us to grow our own food is a big step in that direction," said NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, currently the station's commander.
Along with food, future Mars crews will need water to survive. Aboard the space station, water from urine, perspiration and condensation is recycled, but the system is not perfect. NASA is working on technologies to completely close the loop, a challenging endeavor since fluid physics completely changes in microgravity.
No sense going to Mars if astronauts never go outside. But leaving the safety of a habitat to pick up samples and conduct experiments presents a whole new set of challenges, such as dealing with the planet's ubiquitous dust. Systems under development include docking ports so astronauts can climb into out of their spacesuits as needed without bringing them inside. An artist's rendering of a prototype Mars spacesuit is pictured here.
Human expeditions to the Red Planet are expected to last more than a year, but to make good use of the time astronauts will need a way to travel farther than they can walk. The Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, pictured above, is one vehicle under consideration.
By electrically charging gas, such as argon or xenon, spaceships can efficiently, but slowly navigate to very distant destinations. In "The Martian" the crew's spaceship uses ion engines, a technology currently employed by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, now circling the dwarf planet Ceres. Engineers are working on advanced ion thrusters, pictured above, for future missions.