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Acidalia Planitia
A picture from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the area of Acidalia Planitia where the fictional Ares 3 mission landed in “The Martian.” (Credit: NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

Marooned astronaut Mark Watney takes a harrowing trek from Mars’ Acidalia Planitia to Schiaparelli Crater in “The Martian,” which took the top spot on last weekend’s box-office list with $55 million. But pictures of the actual terrain from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest Watney’s trip would be even riskier in real life.

The science team behind the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, captured a series of images that correspond to scenes in the movie in response to requests from Andy Weir, who wrote the book on which “The Martian” is based.

The most recent photos in the series were released on Sept. 30, just before the movie came out.

“Much of Acidalia Planitia is covered by dense fields of boulders up to several meters high that would be difficult to drive around,” the University of Arizona’s Alfred McEwen, who serves as HiRISE’s principal investigator, writes in one of the image advisories. “There are also fissures associated with giant polygons, with steep rocky slopes that would be impassable. There are elongated fields of dense secondary craters where the surface is extremely rough at scales near the size of the rover.”

The terrain around the trek’s end point, in Schiaparelli Crater, is covered by about a meter’s worth of fine reddish dust, McEwen says. “Exploring this site would be like trying to do field work when there is several feet of snow on the ground,” he writes. “Then again, maybe the dust is cemented so it is easier to drive or walk on it.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfz6rp8McDk

NASA tries to avoid putting landers or rovers in such dust-covered regions, in part because the surface gets so hot during the Martian day and so cold at night. In real life, Watney would have had a hard time sleeping beneath his rover as shown in the movie.

Just chalk all this up as one more difference between “Martian” fact and fiction – alongside the Red Planet’s gentler winds and weaker gravity – and don’t let it stop you from enjoying one of the best space movies of all time.

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