LOS ANGELES — Planetary scientist Pascal Lee could give astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson a good run for his money when it comes to truth-squadding movie depictions of space missions.
For almost two decades, Lee has been working on the tools and techniques that will be needed for future Mars expeditions, as the leader of the Haughton-Mars Project on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. The project, funded by NASA, the SETI Institute and other institutions, provides an earthy analog to the Red Planet’s bleak, cold, dry, isolated environment.
Astronauts could conceivably set up shop on Mars sometime in the next decade or two, and there could be a crewed base on the moon even before that. So Lee says it’s high time for Hollywood to provide a more accurate picture of how such missions would work.
The first humans to reach Mars almost certainly won’t go down to the surface, but will manage fleets of rovers from Martian orbit.
That’s the view of Andy Weir, the author behind a wildly popular space saga titled “The Martian.” But it’s also the view of NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, and lots of other mission planners. NASA’s current plan calls for the first crews to set up shop around Mars and its moons in the 2030s.
The landing vs. orbiting issue came up today during a space-themed session at Transformers, a daylong conference organized by The Washington Post in the nation’s capital. Weir’s novel (and the movie it inspired) focuses on an astronaut left behind on the Red Planet’s surface, but the engineer-turned-author said the initial flights to Mars would probably follow a safer storyline.
He noted that robotic missions to Mars, such as the ones involving NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, require a long latency period between sending commands and getting back the results coming out of those commands. That’s due to the distance between the rovers and their controllers on Earth.
“The biggest benefit to having an astronaut on the surface, in terms of the science, is that that astronaut has a brain,” Weir said. “An astronaut doesn’t have a five- to 20-minute latency in communicating what he or she wants to do on the surface of Mars. So the very first humans-to-Mars-area mission, I suspect, will be a whole bunch of rovers on the surface of Mars, and humans in orbit controlling them. What do you think?”
The announcement about Solanum watneyi made a splash, in part because it came just as the hype over the movie was reaching a crescendo.
Now there’s a second splash: The description of the plant is being published in the journal PhytoKeys – just as “The Martian” and Matt Damon, the actor who played Mark Watney, are basking in the glow of the Academy Awards spotlight.
Fox’s “Life in Space” series is aimed at stirring up interest in today’s release of “The Martian” on DVD and Blu-ray. And speaking of “stirring,” one of the key issues on the International Space Station has to do with getting sufficient shut-eye without floating into your crewmate’s bunk.
NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, a veteran of two space shuttle flights, handles the question in a 46-second clip. It turns out that the accommodations are cozier than you might think.
The science team behind the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, captured a series of images that correspond to scenes in the movie in response to requests from Andy Weir, who wrote the book on which “The Martian” is based.
“The Martian” isn’t due to hit theaters until Oct. 2, but the highly anticipated man-vs.-Mars movie is already sparking some scientific nitpicking. So here’s some advice from NASA astronaut Michael Barratt: Don’t get hung up on what the filmmakers got wrong.
“I would just ask everybody to get past that, because there are so many things they got right,” Barratt, a flight surgeon and two-time spaceflier who has been compared to Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, said during a panel at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.