Review: The Martian

The Martian still

Mark Watney sits on the surface of Mars. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Alone on a planet where the air will kill you, the ground is barren, and it’s so cold you’ll freeze to death; you wake up and realise no one even knows you’re alive. This is the situation that Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself in the latest blockbuster, The Martian. After a disaster on his mission to the red planet, Watney is left behind 140 million miles from aid, with no way to contact Earth. The only man on Mars has nothing but his wits to survive.

Luckily, it’s not long before NASA realises they’ve left a man behind and begin to mount the most ambitious rescue mission in history. For every step closer Watney takes to coming home, another thing breaks, explodes or tries to kill him. While the whole world is looking to Mars in support of Watney, there are many times when the only person he can rely on is himself.

The action flicks back between Mars, those on Earth and the vessel carrying the five other crew mates back and forth between the two. The reminder of all the people that were working to bring one man home helped to give heart to what could so easily have been a dry story of one man growing potatoes and fixing things. However, while this served to highlight the triumphs of every obstacle overcome, it seemed to do the opposite for every set back that occurred on Mars. Major accidents that could easily have killed Watney were easily fixed with a roll of duct tape in a few minutes, making it seem that surviving on Mars was relatively easy when in truth it is anything but.

The bigger challenge was the constant struggle with loneliness, and it was here that the film shone. Though thousands at NASA work tirelessly, ultimately Watney is alone. Fantastically played by Damon, he has nothing but is intellect and smarm to fend off not only the inhospitable Martian terrain, but the psychological horror of being the only living soul on an entire planet.
Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in the depiction of the planet itself. Mars is shown in its full majestic beauty, at once showing the incredible wonder that inspires and draws people to it while simultaneously emphasising its barrenness and emptiness. This is a world that humans cannot survive on, and yet Watney does.

For those of you that have read Andy Weir’s book on which the film is based, there are several changes. Where the book deals with how to survive on Mars, the film concentrates much more on the rescue. Much of the hardcore science nerdery is mentioned, but passed over quickly and several of Watney’s major disasters are by skipped completely, but the spirit and humour of the book very much remains. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend giving it a read. Bring a calculator.

The Martian is a tribute to human determination and exploration and I highly recommend it.

The Martian will be showing in cinemas around the UK from 1 October.

Did you know…?

Pluto New Horizons

New Horizons has provided our closest ever look at this fortunately found dwarf planet.
Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ./APL, Southwest Research Inst.

The planet Pluto was discovered because of a mistake.

In 1821 Alexis Bouvard published a table detailing the orbit of Uranus. Other astronomers quickly noted that there were some irregularities, and hypothesised the existence of another planet pulling Uranus out of line. After several more refined predictions, an approximate placement of the 8th planet was found. In 1846  Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory discovered Neptune, just where it was predicted to be.

It wasn’t long before tables of Neptune’s orbit were published and these appeared to show that they were being pulled out of whack by a 9th planet, dubbed Planet X, though the effect was much smaller.

In 1930 when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto it was quickly touted as the famed 9th planet. However, fame soon turned to infamy. The planet was far too small to disrupt the orbit of the massive Neptune (1186km in diameter according to New Horizons).

Though the apparent perturbations have since been shown to be observational error, there are still people who hunt for Planet X (some believing it to be the harbinger of doom, or about to crash into Earth and kill us all). However he WISE infrared survey discounted the presence of a large body out to a distance of one light year, so its not looking likely for any killer planets.

Why is Venus so hot?

Venus, the second planet from our Sun is a hellish place. Despite being further away than Mercury, the planet is several hundred degrees hotter. At 735K (that’s 462ºC or 863F in old money) the air is hot enough to melt lead and once you start looking at the planet a bit more closely, the reason becomes clear.

Venus's thick atmosphere

Venus’s thick atmosphere prevents astronomers from seeing the planet’s surface. Credit: NASA

Venus’s has one heck of an atmosphere. The surface pressure is around 92 times that found on Earth and it’s made out of some pretty nasty stuff: 96.5% carbon dioxide, 3.5 nitrogen, laced with sulfur dioxide,  sulphric acid and a few other trace elements.

It’s no great secret that carbon dioxide is a green house gas – it lets light and heat in, but not out again. Venus is an example of what can happen if you let carbon dioxide build up in your atmosphere to ridiculous levels.

But what I always wondered was why does Venus have such a thick atmosphere in the first place? In most respects the planet is much like Earth. It’s slightly smaller, with around 80% of Earth’s mass, meaning its gravity is pretty much the same. It’s at 0.7 AU, one AU being the distance between the Earth and the Sun, so it’s not that much closer and from most observations seems to be pretty similar to the Earth. At first glance its warmer atmosphere and lower gravitational pull should mean atmospheric molecules are more likely to escape. So what the hell happened?

The surface of Venus

Using radar, scientists have managed to get a good idea of what Venus’s surface looks like. Credit: Venus

The answer is all to do with that magical substance that has defined the hunt for life in the Galaxy: water. Venus doesn’t have any, or at least not much. It has trace amounts in the atmosphere, around 20 parts per million, but compared to the 40,000 parts per million of water found in our atmosphere it’s practically nothing.

But it used to. As I said, Venus is very similar to Earth and almost certainly formed in much the same way. The Earth has water, as did Mars in the beginning for that matter. It stands to reason that Venus had its fair share too, though we don’t currently have any evidence as no Venusian lander has lasted longer than two hours on the surface.

At some point though the temperature on the planet reached a tipping point and it began to lose its oceans. The Sun has been warming at a rate of a few percent every billion years. On Earth this hasn’t appeared to have effected us too much, but Venus receives twice the energy from the Sun. The change in temperature was too much, eventually the oceans began to evaporate and as that happened, things began to go oh so terribly wrong.

Water’s of Venus

The evaporating water saturated the atmosphere. In the high atmospheric levels the Sun’s radiation started to break apart the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The light hydrogen floated away into the deep dark depths of space while the heavier oxygen does what oxygen always does, and reacted with absa-bloody-everything, most notably any carbon hanging around to create carbon dioxide.

Not only that but as the water evaporated the planet’s mantel began to dry out. Plate tectonics require liquid water to absorb minerals, act as a lubricant and so on. Without it, everything just seizes up, and that’s exactly what happened on Venus. Volcanic activity is another way that carbon dioxide gets sucked up and stored in rocks, being re-released when volcanoes do their thing.

All of this lead to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which caused the planet to begin heating causing the oceans to evapourate and eventually boil. To make matters even worse, water vapour is itself a green house gas, insulating a planet. Once the water began to be lost, Venus never stood a chance. On Earth the interaction between water, rock and carbon dioxide help to regulate our nice, temperate climate [1]. With this thrown out of kilter, everything went awry. The end result is a planet no one ever wants to go on holiday to.

Venus surface by Venera 13

The Russian Venera programme has sent several probes to Venus, including several landers. The missions were the first to land on another planet, but none lasted longer than two hours. However they did manage to send back several images of the planet surface, including this image taken by Venera 13. Credit: Roscosmos

[1] The Earth is pretty good at regulating its temperature. It does this through the interactions of volcanism, carbon dioxide and water. Volcanic activity is constantly catching and releasing carbon dioxide in the Earth’s crust. If the global temperature drops, water freezes, stopping it from absorbing carbon dioxide, which creates a green house effect, which heats the planet and melts the ice. Global temperatures get too high, the ice caps melt, the atmosphere becomes more humid and all that lovely liquid water sucks up the carbon dioxide and temperatures drop again. It should also be noted that while the planet is doing this, there are colossal civilisation ending, mass extinction educing storms and weather pattern shifts, which is why ‘global warming’ does not mean ‘a bit sunnier in the Summer’.

 

Did you know…

1994 Solar eclipse

The light of the corona is usually only visible on Earth during a total eclipse. It can be seen with specialist equipment though. Like a space telescope. Credit: Luc Viatour

The Sun’s corona, this aura of plasma that surrounds the main star, is many hundreds of times hotter than the photosphere, the surface that we see. While the temperature of the Sun’s surface is only 6,000K the corona can reach up to 1,000,000K.

All hail hypnothread. ALL HAIL.

Simulation of a cross section of a thread of solar material. All hail hypnothread. ALL HAIL.
Credits: NAOJ/Patrick Antolin

No one is 100% sure why this is, though the current leading theory is that it’s probably magnets… or rather that magnetic waves generated by the motions of matter inside the star. These oscillate through the Sun and cause the plasma in the corona to move in a turbulent motion (queue mesmerising gif to left) and the friction heats up the corona.

Exploring the Universe with the At-Bristol 3D Planetarium

Sitting under the dome of At-Bristol’s new 3D planetarium, I stared up at what looks like the night sky. There are a few stars I recognised but mostly there was familiar orange glow of light pollution circling the horizon. The presenter leading the show asked us all to close our eyes for a moment.

“Now,” she said. “Open your eyes.”

Credit: Tim Martin

Credit: Tim Martin

In front of my eyes was a sky covered in stars, the Milky Way streaking across the centre. For many people who lived in and around Bristol, this was the first true representation of a dark sky they had ever seen.

Credit: Tim Martin

Credit: Tim Martin

“There was one lady who came out of that show who was buying lots of astronomy books because she wanted to find out more,” said Lee Pullen, Planetarium Manager when I interviewed him later. “She confessed that she’d found the experience so emotional that she’d wept tears of joy in the show. Often people are just amazed. They had no idea there was so much out there to be able to find.”

The show in question was Summer Stargazing, a seasonal show highlighting the landmarks of the night sky at this time of year. We flew to distant stars, searched the sky for various asterisms like Cygnus and Lyra, though the highlight for me was taking a swooping journey through the rings of Saturn. The sight of ice particles jumping out of the screen all around me is something I won’t be forgetting.

An environmental perspective

The planetarium shows don’t just look up at the sky. Their environmental show, Blue Marvel, casts its gaze back downwards to our own fragile planet. Here the 3D really came into its own. The Earth became the canvas on which to paint humanities impact in a very tangible way. Deforestation was projected across the globe and oil consumption per capita jumped out from every country*. But perhaps the most striking moment was when the sea levels were made to rise 20m, flooding the world, including the place where I live.

The show was an excellent way to show the strain we humans are placing on the world, but also rather depressing. There was little indication of what we could do to prevent what seemed like the inevitable destiny of our civilisation.

Bristol is open to technology

But it is projects like this, beyond its main use as a planetarium, that the dome was upgraded for. The funding for the project came in part from the Bristol Is Open project.

“The Bristol Is Open Network is a high speed network that runs all around under Bristol,” says Seamus Foley, the planetarium’s media production officer. As part of this network the Planetarium goes by the moniker ‘the At-Bristol Data Dome’. “The idea is that in the future we might be able to stream 4K frames down the pipe in real time so you can have a supercomputer processing visualisations of molecular simulations, for example, and it turns up in the planetarium.”

The planetarium aims to be more than just a fancy screen for showing astronomy films, and the team are currently working at ways to make the dome earn its keep, including some intriguing ideas such as putting on music concerts and introducing interactivity.

At-Bristol Planetarium & Millennium Square

Credit: Tim Martin

“One of the experiments that we’ve done is dropping a buggy onto scans of the Tycho Crater and driving around it like a computer game,” says Foley. “We want to make it more than just a cinema experience. We want it to be an interactive and engaging, let people can take part and take control of the experience.”

Whatever comes next, I’m sure it will put the planetarium to its best use. I look forward to finding out what At-Bristol has in store.


* – Luxemburg was the real surprise here. It practically hit you in the head with it’s oil consumption the spike was so huge. Apparently it’s due to people nipping across the border to fill up on cheap petrol.

For those of you with a family At-Bristol is open most days between 10am-5pm on weekdays, and 10am – 6pm on weekends. They also regularly puts on After Hours and Planetarium Nights to allow adults to use the planetarium and have a look round.

 

From Russia with Rocks

On 15th February 2013 an explosion happened in the air above Chelyabinsk, Russia blowing out windows and doors for miles around. It was not, as many locals thought, a bomb going off but the shock wave created when a huge asteroid hit the earth’s atmosphere. News carriers around the world quickly picked up on the story, inviting experts to come and talk about the meteorite. Experts like me! I was contacted asking whether or not I’d like to go to Russia to film a documentary on the meteor. I, of course, said yes. After several manic days of trying to get visas and cold weather gear I was off.

It was great to be in the place where the meteor actually struck down.  It’s the first time something like this has happened and it’s been caught on camera. By looking at the footage scientists were quickly able to work out what direction the asteroid came from and how fast it was going. The best estimates put it somewhere around the 40,000mph mark.

Meteoroids are small particles of space rock, ranging from dust grains all the way up to kilometre sized asteroids. Meteoroids hit the Earth’s atmosphere all the time, around 50,000 tonnes of them a year. When this happens they, they become known as meteors. Most are small and burn up in the atmosphere, meaning they’re only dust when they reach the ground. By using stations across the globe designed to listen out for nuclear bombs, astronomers managed to work out how much energy the meteor created when it exploded, putting the size of the meteor at about 10,000 tonnes. Meteors of this size are thought to hit the planet once every 100 years or so. While it’s sad that so many people got hurt, it was really fortunate to have the event caught on so many cameras.

On the hunt

A quick explanation to camera before heading out into the snow fields to look for my rocks!

The day after we arrived we headed out into the countryside to ground zero: the spot directly underneath where the asteroid exploded. The fact that the area is covered in snow was actually a huge help to us meteorite hunters. I had to look for tiny holes in the snow, made by the meteorite as they showered from above. When you found a hole you had to dig around it, clearing a ring. Then I had to sift through the snow in the middle and hopefully find a meteorite. A lot of the holes were from mice or bits of tree but eventually me and the team got lucky and we found one! It was about the size of a jelly bean, covered in a black crust and felt really heavy.

Me and my Meteorite

Me with a 1kg meteorite found by the Urals Federal University.

We took the fragment to Urals Fedral University, where they were looking at the fragments already found. The discovered that the meteor was actually a rather average meteor, with about 7-10% iron, which was why the rock felt so heavy. I even got to look at a piece in a travelling electron microscope.

Despite the devastation that this meteor caused it was actually quite small, probably only 15m across, around the size of a house. The one that killed the dinosaurs was about 10km in size. Luckily those only happen every few million years and we’d probably see it coming. Projects like Pan-STARRS regularly scan the sky and can find nearly all asteroids that would risk wiping out all life on the planet. It hasn’t found any that are on a collision course with Earth, so there’s no need to worry. We’re not going the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.

Meteor Strike: Fireball from Space is currently available on 4OD. If you haven’t seen it already, you might want to give it a look.

How far is the far side of the moon?

As I’m sure many of you are aware the same side of the Moon always faces out towards us, which is why it looks the same every night. This is because the Moon is ‘tidally locked’ and the time it takes to turn on its axis (29.5 days) is the same as it takes to go round the Earth.

It wasn’t always like this though and it didn’t just happen by chance. Since the Moon was created the Earth has been pulling on it and over time this pulling slowed down the Moon’s turning until it got to the state it is in now.

Libration of the moon

This animation shows how the lunar surface appears to wobble over a few nights, giving us a little glimpse of the dark side of the Moon.

You might be thinking that we’ll only ever see half of the Moon with our own eyes, seeing as how holidays to the Moon aren’t looking likely any time soon, but that’s not quite true because of something called libration. The Moon orbits around the Earth in a slightly eccentric orbit, meaning it goes in an ellipse rather than a circle. When the Moon is closer the Earth pulls on it more and it spins faster. When the Moon is further away it turns slower. Over the 29.5 days it takes the Moon to go around the Earth it will rotate once but this slowing down and speeding up means that what we see in the sky wobbles a bit. If you look at the night by night animation on the right you can see what I mean.

If you look at the Moon every night from new Moon to new Moon you’ll actually get to see 59% of the Moon’s surface. The other 41% isn’t completely dark to us though. We’ve sent enough missions around the Moon that we’ve got some pretty good images of it. Personally I prefer our side. Apparently a man lives in it, though I’ve never managed to see the bloke myself…

The far side of the moon.

The far side of the moon, imaged by NASA’s Lunar Recon Orbiter