Hollywood takes liberties with everything. But, ‘The Martian’ used actual real regions on Mars for the film’s landing sites. There are some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s nothing that wasn’t shown in the trailers, though.

Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) spends most of the time in the movie at the Ares 3 site in southern Acidalia Planitia. In the book, Andy Weir describes Acidalia as flat and easy to traverse. But Acidalia is far from it. Here’s what southern Acidalia Planitia looks like courtesy of the HiRISE instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


In reality, Acidalia Planitia would be a nightmare to drive over. A good portion of this region is covered by fields of boulders measuring up to 10 feet high or more. If the boulders don’t give you problems, fissures with steep rocky slopes will.

Here’s an image showing the exact spot where the Ares 3 habitat is in the book.

real Mars site for The Martian

The bluish areas in this HiRISE photo would appear gray or slightly reddish to anyone on Mars’ surface. According to this HiRISE post, if Mark Watney were laying flat on the surface of Mars, he would be just six pixels tall in the image above.

The next image shows the region between Ares 3 and Ares 4.

the martian location

According to the HiRISE website, this area is flat and is covered in Martian dust. The dust layer is believed to be at least a meter thick because you can’t see any boulders.

NASA’s Mars rovers tend to avoid these regions for a couple of reasons. The first is the dust. It has a low thermal inertia which means it gets warmer in the daytime and colder at night. Careful temperature regulation is vital for the success of Mars’ rovers. NASA can’t have them experiencing wild temperature swings throughout a lengthy mission. Plus, the dust covers the bedrock, making any scientific observations difficult.

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HiRISE could spot a real life ‘The Martian’ landing site

One of HiRISE’s tasks is helping select potential landing sites for NASA missions. In the past, it helped select landing sites for NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover and other robotic missions. Later this month, a workshop will be held in Houston to consider landing areas for the first human mission to Mars.

Workshop attendees will discuss potential locations where humans could land, live and work on the martian surface. Any potential landing site will center around an Exploration Zone (EZ). With current mission concepts, any potential human landing site may be limited to a 100-kilometer area. The workshop will review areas that have multiple Regions of Interests (ROI) within the 100 kilometer EZ. Here’s an example of what they’ll be looking for and discussing.

exploration zone layout

The workshop held on Oct. 27 – 30 is the first step towards selecting a potential landing site for a manned mission to Mars.

When will a manned mission to Mars take place? The current NASA timeline is for the capabilities to send humans to Mars to be ready in the 2030s. It’s realistic and here’s why. Private companies. SpaceX and others will help push the entire aerospace industry towards even greater things.

Creating a new heat shield

One obstacle that NASA faces with any mission to Mars is limited space. The spacecraft that carries humans to the Martian surface will need a larger heat shield to protect against the heat of entering Mars’ atmosphere and decelerating in the red planet’s thin atmosphere.

One solution is NASA’s Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT). It’s a mechanically deployable heat shield concept using carbon fabric. Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California recently completed a successful heat simulation test using conditions similar to entering the Martian atmosphere.

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ADEPT heat shield

From the press release:

The photograph above shows one of these tests. In it, a flow of extremely heated air is exiting the 21-inch diameter nozzle from the left, causing a bow shock to form in front of the ADEPT test article, which is attached to a water-cooled support arm. Surface temperatures on the test article reached 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The bluish-hue streaks, streaming away from the test article, are due to the decomposition of the resin-infused protective layers that prevent degradation of the stitched fabric joints.

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