Taking the red planet

A new TV series by National Geographic depicts a realistic version of how humans could colonize Mars within the next two decades


A photo from Mangalyaan. Photo: PTI
A photo from Mangalyaan. Photo: PTI

Mars is a terrifyingly beautiful planet. It teases us constantly—so close, yet so far away, so nearly habitable but so deadly, so similar to Earth but with surface features that make the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest pale in comparison. It is a planet inhabited solely by robots. Indeed, there are six orbiters around the planet today, including India’s own Mangalyaan, and two operational rovers—the outcome of the whopping 55 missions we’ve sent there. Mars is the closest we can get to a practical, inhabitable space other than Earth. Mars is where we need to go to save our irresponsible species. And that is where an incredible forthcoming series by National Geographic is set.

Titled Mars, the six-part, hybrid fictional documentary series is set in 2033. It explores the adventures of six crew members who have been tasked with setting up the first human settlement on Mars. Interspersed with this fictional story are clips of some of the brightest minds of today describing to viewers the perils and practical difficulties associated with every step the crew takes. Among these are Elon Musk, chief executive officer (CEO) of SpaceX, Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, Charles Bolden, Jr, current administrator of the US space agency Nasa, Ann Druyan, producer and writer of TV series Cosmos, and Andy Weir, author of The Martian, the book that the 2015 movie of the same name, starring Matt Damon, was based on. The series boasts of some serious Hollywood clout as well; among its executive producers are Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and Brian Grazer, producer of such award-winning movies as American Gangster and The Da Vinci Code. It is directed by Everardo Gout. And Framestore, the Academy Award-winning visual effects team behind Gravity and The Martian, has created the visuals.

The Mission

The ethnically diverse crew travels 209 days to Mars on a rocket spaceship called Daedalus, a functioning version of today’s reusable rockets. It lands on four legs, slowing itself down with retro rockets and fiery thrusters. Once Daedalus sets up a preliminary base of operations, phase 2 of the mission will begin, with another settlement colony leaving for Mars.

Every episode in the series shows the crew struggling with a new problem—a landing system failure, an astronaut injury and an infrastructure problem due to dust storms among them. It then shows how scientists, researchers and innovators are working to solve these precise problems in the real world today.

A still from Mars. Photo: Robert Viglasky/National Geographic Channels
A still from Mars. Photo: Robert Viglasky/National Geographic Channels

The Science

There are no warp drives or wormholes or time-travel paradoxes in Mars. Every scene in the series is designed to be as scientifically accurate as possible. Predicting what technology will be available in 2033 is tricky. We are currently in the S-curve of scientific advancement, where developments that occur in just a few months are more than all the scientific advancement made in human history. One year ago, reusable rocket launchers were a pipedream; today we have successfully tested over five of them.

While it is entirely probable that we will have more advanced technology in real-world 2033, the series has tried to use technology that is already real today or will be in the immediate future, with maybe just a little more for dramatization. It blends in footage of engineers working on cutting-edge technology today.

There is a lot to contend with. For starters, Mars has just over one-third of Earth’s gravity. Replicating movement on the planet has so far either gone gloriously wrong (John Carter) or has been ignored completely to remove complexity (The Martian). The surface and skies of Mars are usually portrayed as orange and red to provide Earth-like saturation, whereas the rocks on Mars are actually grey-green, and the evenings see vivid-blue sunsets. The low gravity will start affecting human bodies, reducing muscle mass, elongating the spinal cord and increasing a person’s height, reducing bone density and blood volume, making it near impossible for bodies that have adjusted to a Martian setting over time to survive upon return to Earth. The crew of Daedalus lives on Mars for at least four years.

Creating a colony on the Martian surface requires combating a deadly power—solar radiation. Mars has a wispy atmosphere, and even though the sun is just half as bright or warm as on Earth, UV radiation can penetrate more easily and deeper. While radiation can be prevented by using multi-layer insulation, that gold foil-like sheet used to cover satellites, it would be difficult to have structures withstand this every day. A natural solution is to go underground, which is what the crew of Daedalus does.

Later episodes in the series will show a large human settlement on Mars called Olympus Town. The settlement is built in a lava tube, a natural tunnel formed by flowing lava that moves rapidly below a solidified bed of lava. Such tubes exist on Earth, Mars and even the moon. “It’s like Homo sapiens have returned to our roots as cave dwellers,” says executive producer Justin Wilkes. “Here we are on a new planet, and we’re huddling in a cave around a proverbial fire.”

A concept photo of the rover China plans to launch in 2020. Photo: China Daily/Reuters
A concept photo of the rover China plans to launch in 2020. Photo: China Daily/Reuters

The Realism

Much like the movie Gravity, there is a lot of attention to detail in Mars. Every item on the rocket and settlement is labelled and stored in accordance with International Space Station (ISS) protocol. The on-board displays feature real data modelled on actual calculations. Production designer Sophie Becher worked with Nasa and SpaceX to design Daedalus and Olympus Town. The settlement features a portable dwelling design inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s famous geodesic domes. They are lightweight and inflatable modular structures that can be connected by collapsible corridors.

The show features twin sisters—one is on Daedalus and one is part of the control team back on Earth. Scientists use the twins to study the effects of the low gravity on Mars on the human body. Today, in the real world, similar studies are being done on identical twins Scott and Mark Kelly—the former spent a considerable amount of time in zero gravity on the ISS while the latter stayed back on Earth. Scott Kelly is featured in an episode that deals with this.

The present-day scenes that tackle future Martian problems in each of the episodes were filmed at a variety of locations. The NatGeo crew was the first and only one to get permission to film inside one of SpaceX’s facilities, to show the struggles of landing a reusable rocket. McMurdo Station, a US research centre in Antarctica, is featured while exploring the quest for life in harsh Martian conditions. The recently concluded isolation experiment off the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii that simulated an extraterrestrial human colony is also shown. There is even behind-the-scenes footage of the ExoMars orbiter and lander mission, a joint project by the European and Russian space agencies that made news on 19 October, when it entered Mars’ orbit. The producers scoured the planet to find natural locations that mimic Martian locations. Filming took place in the US, Budapest (Hungary) and Morocco earlier this year.

The astounding natural features of Mars are incorporated in the visuals. Olympus Mons, once the tallest mountain in the solar system, provides the backdrop against which Olympus Town is built. It stands nearly 22km in height, over twice as tall as Mount Everest. Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the solar system, is more than 4,000km long, 200km wide and 7km deep—to put this in perspective, the Grand Canyon is 445km long, 30km wide and less than 1km deep. The dust storms that ravage the planet continuously over days—sometimes even months—erode rocks, giving them an unnatural shape, making them jut out at odd angles. “The offer to the audience will be information meets vivid and experiential film-making. NatGeo’s ambition was high, and we are really honoured and thrilled to try and meet that challenge,” says Howard.

Mars comes at the peak of today’s pop culture interest in space exploration. Innovators such as Elon Musk and the Big Five (the US, European Union, India, Japan, China) have sent crafts to Mars, and our obsession with the planet is growing each day—there’s a genuine possibility that we’ll start a colony there in the next two decades. The age of the Space Race will soon draw to a close, as more and more nations collaborate on missions. Mars epitomizes international collaboration, both in terms of mission funding as well as settlers. “Any time you talk about something like a human journey to Mars, if you’re not talking about an international effort, I don’t think you’re serious,” says Chris Bolden, Nasa administrator. Mars is said to be the most expensive NatGeo production to date.

Mars will premiere on 14 November, 9pm, on the National Geographic Channel.

The landmark missions

Mariner 4, Nasa

1965

The pictures this craft returned showed a dead world, overturning scientists’ view of possible life on the planet.

Mariner 9, Nasa

1971

It spotted the top of Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system.

Mars Express, European Space Agency

2004

It discovered water ice on Mars as well as traces of methane in the atmosphere.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Nasa

2006

Its powerful camera has enabled us to fully map the planet with detailed images. Most recently, the MRO was in the news for identifying evidence of liquid water on Mars.

Curiosity, Nasa

2012

It has been responsible for a series of discoveries, including evidence that Mars once had large flowing rivers, similarities in soil with Hawaii’s, and confirmation that some of the meteorites on Earth are from Mars. The rover also takes images of celestial events such as Martian sunsets.

Mangalyaan, Isro

2014

India’s first craft to another planet is the only Mars mission in orbit capable of delivering a full-globe image of Mars due to the elongated nature of its orbit.

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