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Fact checking 'The Martian'

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie in "The Martian."
Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie in "The Martian." (20th Century Fox)

By now you've probably seen or heard the hype surrounding the movie, "The Martian," which opened Friday at theaters.

The basic premise of the movie involves a crew of astronauts on Mars that has to evacuate their habitat due to an intense dust storm. One of the astronauts, Mark Watney, is thought to be killed during the evacuation, so the rest of the crew leaves him behind. However, he ends up surviving, and the rest of the movie involves his enterprising survival skills, such as growing potatoes and making water in the crew's home habitat, while trying to work out a rescue attempt.

So, how much of this movie is scientifically plausible, and how much of it is, well, let's call it Hollywood Hyperbole?

Thanks to the help of Nicole Casal Moore in the University of Michigan's College of Engineering, I've been able to get the thoughts of three scientists about various aspects of the movie.

Nilton Renno, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, has been involved in several robotic missions to the Red Planet, most recently Mars Science Laboratory and Phoenix. His expertise is perfect to discuss Mars' overall environment and the existence of dust storms (by the way, I've seen images from orbit showing Martian dust storms, so I know that they exist).

"I think dust is going to be a big problem in the exploration of Mars," he said. "The winds can pick up a lot of dust. Noon on Mars can be almost as dark as midnight."

He says, however, that Martian storms don't occur as often as the book on which the movie is based contends. And by the way, I've also seen images of dust devils on Mars, but I don't know if there are any of these in the movie!

Ryan Miller, lead engineer in research at U-M's Space Physics Research Lab, a division of XTRM Labs, discussed the challenges of growing plants on Mars. Miller has worked for 30 years on space instruments that measure the composition of Mars' soil and atmosphere.

"Mars is an extremely harsh environment with very cold temperatures and because the atmosphere is so thin and there's no magnetic field on the whole planet, it's constantly bombarded by radiation from the sun," Miller said. "Mark Watney's greenhouse-like enclosure would have had to block this radiation."

So, as long as he was able to somehow filter the sun's intense radiation, it's certainly possible that astronaut Watney could have grown potatoes in his habitat.

And then there's the task of sending a rescue mission to Mars. Jon Van Noord, lead mechanical engineer at U-M's Space Physics Research Lab, addressed the challenge of successfully bringing Mark Watney back to Earth. Van Noord spent nine years working on spacecraft propulsion at NASA Glenn Research Center. He says Earth and Mars are only relatively close once every 22 months, and the quickest we could perform a rescue today (if we had to send one all the way from Earth) would be 6-8 months. While the "ion propulsion" discussed in the movie isn't as futuristic as it sounds, Van Noord said that, to generate the amount of force you'd need to set a rocket into motion using ion propulsion, "we'd have to have a fictional nuclear reactor that's beyond what we currently have."

So there you have it. I admit that I'm a science geek. I think about this stuff when I go to movies -- you should have seen me when I watched the movie "Twister" for the first time. Oh the comments I was making to my wife! Enjoy the movie, and know that some of what you are watching is easily within the realm of scientific possibility.


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