Science of the ‘The Martian’ checked by U-M experts

October 2, 2015


As sci-fi fans prepare to be marooned on Mars with actor Matt Damon, University of Michigan researchers have checked the science of the movie, “The Martian.”

The researchers featured are also available to discuss: how bad dust storms really are on Mars, whether it would be possible to grow food there, and the spacecraft propulsion challenges of getting to our neighboring planet or sending a rescue mission.

Nilton Renno, professor climate and space sciences and engineering, has been involved in several robotic missions to the Red Planet, most recently Mars Science Laboratory and Phoenix. He can discuss the environment on Mars, and particularly, dust storms.

“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.

Contact: 734-936-0488,

Ryan Miller, lead engineer in research at U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab, a division of XTRM Labs, can address 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.”

Contact: 734-763-5373,

Jon Van Noord, lead mechanical engineer at U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab, a division of XTRM Labs, can discuss the challenges of sending a rescue mission to Mars. 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 story isn’t as futuristic as it sounds, Van Noord said, 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.”

Contact: 734-936-0518,