The Martian: Good or Bad Astronomy?

The Martian is honestly one of the coolest and well-made space movies I have ever seen. Watney, played by Matt Damon, gets stuck on Mars after a major storm hits and during his crew' evacuation, he is hit by a piece of debris sending him flying into the abyss. Unfortunately, the rest of his crew must leave without him. He is left up to his own devices, and expert level botany skills, to survive on Mars until NASA can send his a rescue mission. So in an intense, yet comical, series of events, viewers get to see what life on Mars might look like. Of course, this was a case of emergency but the film did depict many things accurately. But let's break down that accuracy through Philip Plait's "Top 10 Examples of Bad Astronomy in Major Motion Pictures".

1: The first and probably one of the biggest mistakes movie directors make in space films is that there is no sound in space since it needs a medium (air) to move through. So rockets, explosions, guns, and all those sound effects are just flat out wrong. In some cases, this principle is preserved in The Martian, but not always. This can be seen when Watney decides to poke a hole in his suit so he can get closer to the ship there to save him. I'm not sure if the air escaping would make sound since it is air. But as he is moving towards the ship, there are sounds like there is air moving around him, like an airplane through the sky.

2: The second one is the fact that even if there were a "cluster" of asteroids in space, they would all be very far apart because of the vastness of space. So a ship battling through an asteroid field is not realistic. However, this is not an issue in the Martian as it just never comes up.

3: Number 3 is banking. To bank, you need air and wings. Again, there is no air in space, therefore no need for wings or banking. It just wouldn't do anything to help with turning. In every scene where there is some spaceship in motion, only thrusters are used to turn which is correct.

4 & 5: Since no enemies are trying to attack humans in this movie, these two examples of bad astronomy aren't relevant. #4 deals with dodging laser beams since they move at the speed of light so it's not possible, but there are no lasers in The Martian. And #5 is about aliens just flying in from another galaxy as if it was like an overnight flight from Italy, but again there are no aliens in this movie.

6: In number 6, Plait questions the aliens' intent for wanting to steal Earth's water even though water can be found all over space. Though there weren't any aliens trying to steal water in this movie, there was water on Mars, Watney just made most of it himself.

7: "Escaping Earth's gravity" isn't something that happens. The amount of gravity an object feels as it gets farther from Earth decreases exponentially. So no matter how far away an object is from Earth, it will always feel a fraction of the gravity even if it's really small. This is not an issue in the movie though.

8: In many space movies, spaceships will zoom past stars. The problem is, stars are way too far away to notice any difference in position. In The Martian, when the Hermes is seen from the outside moving through space, rather than it going past hundreds of stars, it is surrounded by nothingness which is much more realistic. There is really no point of reference in space and the movie does a very good job of recognizing this.

9 & 10: Unfortunately, these last two examples don't necessarily pertain to the movie either. There is one small "explosion" which could be related back to #9 but it's not enough to cause any drastic reaction, just a broken space module. And there aren't any times in the movie when the Moon can be seen from space, let alone in the wrong phase due to its position relative to the sun.

All in all, The Martian did do a truly amazing job of being accurate in space since that is a very hard thing to achieve. Though their depiction of weightlessness in space was a little off, I would give it a GP (good physics) rating.


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