The Martian - the Science Behind the Scenario

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The Mars Experts of the SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center Talk About the Science Behind the Scenario  

Nathalie A. Cabrol, Director, SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center

The recent discovery of water flowing at the surface of Mars is great news for the search for life and for human exploration. Hopefully, nobody will be stranded on the Red Planet like Mark Watney in the movie The Martian, but this discovery is certainly helping humans getting closer to Mars. Why? 

Water and perchlorates will be critical resources in the establishment of a human colony on the Red Planet in many ways. For one, water is essential to our daily lives, for instance, to drink or to grow crops. Granted that the fluid coming out from the so-called recurring slope lineae and from the gullies would be far from being drinkable as they are, they still can be useful after processing. There is also more water trapped in the polar caps, and most likely in deep aquifers all over the planet. Once you have water and electricity, you also have oxygen.


Recurring slope lineae Credit NASA / JPL / UA / Emily Lakdawalla

Perchlorates, which abound on Mars, can be used to generate solid rocket fuel. How is this important? This means that a crew would not have to transport it from Earth, and the equation is pretty simple: The heavier a rocket, the more expensive a mission becomes, and every single kilogram that can be removed from that rocket at takeoff is that much money saved. Being able to produce rocket fuel on Mars pretty much saves the cost of a ticket back home. By making missions to Mars more affordable, we are also making human missions more likely to happen sooner.

However, getting there is only the first part of the journey. Once astronauts have landed on Mars, they will be faced with challenges. The movie The Martian starts as mankind has already made the leap of sending a human crew to the Red Planet. To reach that point would have taken decades of integrated scientific and technologic investigations, as well as advances in the understanding of the geology, the past and current climate of Mars, its habitability and life potential, and the feasibility and survivability potential of a human mission.

At the SETI Institute's Carl Sagan Center (CSC), we have the privilege to be right, front, and center in that journey. As part of the Planetary Exploration Research Thrust of the Institute, we have world-class scientists regularly making the headlines with planetary mission discoveries, and that includes the Mars missions. The CSC has been involved in pretty much all the missions to Mars of the past 15 years, orbiters, landers, and rovers combined. Our scientists are involved as mission science team members, key deciders on where to land and how to explore, and experts analyzing mission data and deciphering the physical and chemical processes behind the observations. They are also world leaders in the study of terrestrial extreme environments as analogs to early and present Mars conditions. In those environments, they simulate – in real mission operational scenarios –  robotic and human missions and they design and test the types of instruments that will be needed to explore Mars and possibly help identify the signatures of life in the near future. They also design systems, science operation scenarios, and exploration strategies.

Behind the scenes, they are working every day at making the journey of a future human crew to Mars possible in a not so distant future. In the coming days, some of them will share with you their expertise and give you an idea of the real science behind the scenario of the movie The Martian. You could not be in better hands. They are the best. Enjoy the journey.