CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- Science fiction movies often lean heavily on the fiction, and leave the science behind- case in point, Armageddon.

“That one is pretty bad in terms of its physics and how NASA works,” says Tony Rice, JPL/NASA Solar System Ambassador. But every once in a while a piece of cinema gets the facts right…or at least mostly right. 

The violent Martian dust storm that kicks off the plot in the film. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Not a storm, but a breeze

The Martian begins with a catastrophic dust storm on Mars that leaves astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, presumed dead and stranded on Mars. It’s a gripping start, but “man was it bad science,” says Rice.

“It is physically impossible for wind to do that there.” 

While massive dust storms on Mars can have hurricane force winds, it won’t pack the same punch as it does on Earth. Mars’ atmosphere is a hundred times thinner than ours and with less molecules to be blown around, the force exerted by wind is much, much less. A 60 mph wind gust on Mars would feel closer to 6 mph on Earth.

As such, this dramatic dust storm would be a breeze, and certainly wouldn’t blow someone away. While that threat is overexaggerated, the thick clouds of dust within these storms (which can be global in scale) can be catastrophic to anything relying on solar power. Mars’ dust is roughly the size and consistency of talcum powder, which gets suspended in the atmosphere and can almost completely block out the sun in massive dust storm. This type of event proved to be the end for NASA’s Opportunity rover, which was killed by one in 2018.

A dust devil on Mars captured via satellite. Credit: NASA

Twisters & lightning on another planet

While this depiction isn’t the best, the other weather phenomena shown in the Martian aren’t just another piece of movie magic. Dust devils are fairly common on the red planet, and have been observed by Mars rovers and satellites.

Unlike dust devils on Earth and depicted in the movie, actual Martian dust devils are wispy and thin and form from the ground up. This differs to those shown in the movie as they descend from clouds but there just simply isn’t enough atmosphere for that to actually occur as tornadoes do on Earth.

While lightning hasn’t been photographed on Mars, it could certainly happen in dust storms as Rice explains.

“The amount of static electricity built up in that environment is going to be fairly significant because of the amount of dust being held in the atmosphere… I don’t know if the lightning would look like the way it looked, but you know that’s where lightning comes from the build up and release of static electricity”

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Sticking to the science

The film’s scientific authenticity goes beyond the setting as major plot points, set pieces, and depictions of space technology are grounded in fact, not fiction.

One major problem Watney faces is heat management. To fix this, he digs up a device known as a RTG, or a Radioisotope Thermometric Generator. This device, powered by a small amount of radioactive material, is factual. “We absolutely do send nuclear devices to another planet…it’s very controlled,” says Rice. It acts as a trickle charger, converting heat produced from the radioactive material into electricity.

While this is a clever solution, other solutions presented in the book & film, such as creating water from a combustible chemical reaction, might have simpler alternative. “What he did was scientifically cool…but if I was in his shoes, I’d start digging,” says Rice as frozen water lurks just beneath the Martian surface.

These are just a few of the many details that the writers & filmmakers got right in creating this story that treats science with respect not usually given to blockbuster films.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson