The Science Behind ‘Mars’: More Sci Than Fi

In real life, humankind may be taking its sweet time to get to the Red Planet, but in the movies, we’ve been there hundreds of times.

The latest iteration in the voyage to our planet’s red sibling comes in the form of Mars, an indie animated romantic comedy from Austin, Tx-based director, animator, and writer Geoff Marslett. And oh yeah, it’s set in a spaceship on its way to Mars.

The movie follows three astronauts on their journey through space to seek out life on Mars, and without spoiling anything for people who haven’t yet seen the film, some of the ideas presented here do stretch the limits of credibility just a little.

But Marslett, who studied theoretical physics before going into filmmaking, did draw on a lot of current research when creating his film. So while the movie is a story first and scientific second, we can definitely look to the film–set in the near-future–to see where space travel may be going.

Without further ado, we present Three Things In Mars That Seemed Like Sci-Fi But Aren’t:

  • Ion Thrusters

    Think ion drives are the stuff of Star Trek? They’ve been in use in satellites for years, and space agencies are testing the propulsion systems for use in interplanetary voyages. Engineering company Hughes developed a system called XIPS (later bought by Boeing) which keeps satellites in orbit; the ESA is also planning to send an unmanned ship, named BepiColombo, to Mercury using a combination of regular rocket fuel and ion thrusters. The ion drive, powered by solar energy, is much more efficient in the long run than rocket fuel, though it’s much slower. Here, an artist’s rendering of the BepiColombo as it approaches Mercury.mars_bepicolombo.jpeg

  • Comfy Space Suits

    Current space suits are bulky and unflattering, but the suits in ‘Mars’ look flexible, thin, and allow for easy movement. They look like something that wouldn’t protect you against anything–let alone radiation, dust storms, and temperature extremes–but many researchers are working on “space suit 2.0.” Pablo de Leon, who leads the University of North Dakota Space Suit Laboratory has designed a series of suits that would work in the harsh, dusty environments of Mars without restricting mobility. mars _main1.jpgmars_ndx1.JPG

  • The Beagle 2

    In 2003, the European Space Agency launched the Beagle 2: a Mars lander that conked out on Christmas Day and was never heard from again. Again, no spoilers, but in Mars, the Beagle makes another appearance. And okay, okay, that doesn’t really sound that unbelievable. In fact, this isn’t even the bot’s first appearance in a feature-length film—but it may be the Beagle’s first accurate appearance.

    The lander also had a cameo in Transformers, when it was stepped on by a Decepticon. Marslett says he was kind of disappointed when he saw it: “I was like ‘Oh, they put the Beagle in here! Don’t steal my idea!’ But they made it into a rover that drove around. It was like they didn’t even bother to look up what the robot looked like,” he says. In Mars, the ‘bot looks pretty much like it did in life.

Final thoughts, from Marslett himself:

“We’re all telling stories, and [unrealistic science] is not a reason to dislike a film. There are places where my characters float and it’s not how they’d float in space, but you know what? We weren’t filming in space. Those were wire tricks. But I do hope that because we researched the science, this movie doesn’t just feel like I said ‘Flux Capacitor’ and pushed some buttons.”

The trailer for Mars, which premiered at South By Southwest, is below. If you’re interested in seeing the whole film (which stars Mark Duplass, Zoe Simpson, Paul Gordon and even Kinky Friedman), keep an eye on Marslett’s production company, Swerve Pictures, as the film will be making the festival circuit.

MARS – The Movie [HD Trailer] from Geoff Marslett on Vimeo.

Rachel Kaufman is a freelance writer currently rocking out at South By Southwest and guest posting for Breaking Orbit.
Image credits: BepiColombo rendering: ESA – P. Carril; NDX-1 space suit: Pablo de Leon; still from Mars: Geoff Marslett

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