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Big trip to the red planet

Naturevolume 440pages2829 (2006) | Download Citation


Roving Mars.

An IMAX movie produced and directed by George Butler. Walt Disney Pictures: 2006

Robotic space exploration is humanized and dramatized when it is turned into an exciting story and presented on a screen so large, and showing such detail, as to be overwhelming. The IMAX film Roving Mars brings the movie skills of the Walt Disney Company to NASA's Mars exploration missions. We hear and see the stories of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers as they were built, launched and operated on the martian surface.

My bedroom television, although not small, subtends an angle of about 10°, the width of my fist held at arm's length (astronomers go around measuring angular distances with their fists and fingers all the time). An IMAX movie, seen from a typical seat in the middle of the theatre, subtends an angle of about 70°. What's more, it is 50° high, enveloping you in the picture. But IMAX is more than simply a big screen — the film in the water-cooled IMAX projectors (and in the IMAX cameras) is much larger than ordinary film, having about ten times the area, so it captures much more detail. And the detail shows: the images are crystal clear. High-quality sound, with pumping subwoofers, also helps the ambience, and Roving Mars has an appropriately ethereal score by Philip Glass.

The film begins by crediting NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with the unique capability of building the rovers, and explains that Steve Squyres of Cornell University was chosen to head the mission. A substantial part of the film deals with building and testing the rovers, which we see in exquisite, close-up detail. We learn how flexible each rover is, with its six wheels each individually mounted and with a robotic arm that has the equivalent of shoulder, elbow and wrist motions. We see the individual devices on the arm, and how one of them, the rock abrasion tool, can cut through rock surfaces to allow unweathered surfaces to be analysed.

The movie takes us to Cape Canaveral for the launch. Dramatic high-resolution images are followed by an animation of the mission. The main problem I had with the film was distinguishing photographs from the animations, which are of exceptionally high quality; I wish the latter always had “animation” printed in a corner, or some other demarcation. And I wish the movie-makers hadn't added whooshes of sound as the later-stage rocket engines ignited, as sound doesn't travel in space.

The rovers' six wheels and battery of tools made them well equipped to explore the martian surface. Credit: DISNEY ENTERPRISES

We are shown an animation of the landing on Mars, as no cameras hovered overhead to film the event. We see the delicate rovers cradled in spherical airbags that are cut free from parachutes and left to bounce several times, with the images animated using actual data transmitted to Earth. Real cutaways to the scientists, engineers and administrators in the JPL control room provide the spirit of space exploration. We clearly see the emotional effects of the time delay caused by the finite speed of light. And we share the elation in the control room when, after a frightening further delay, the first signals come through.

Actual film obtained on the martian surface is shown for only a few minutes at the end, but the treatment is nonetheless first-rate. The narrator discusses the evidence for past water on the martian surface, and we see types of rock that only form as sediments, such as jarosite. The movie shows, in tremendous close-up, the haematite masses known as ‘blueberries’ that have eroded out of the rocks — these are taken as evidence for past water on Mars. And we see some dramatic images of the planet's surface, including the crater that Spirit climbed out of, complete with tyre tracks.

Roving Mars is a model of how to draw the public into space exploration. The giant size and excellent sound make the movie especially commanding, but even the TV-resolution DVD that may soon be available would be suitable for showing in schools. A 20-page ‘educator guide’ can be downloaded from the official website, which includes an excellent 90-second trailer that samples various parts of the movie.

The film can now be seen at IMAX cinemas across the United States and will be released in other countries later in 2006.

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  1. Field memorial professor of astronomy at Williams College, Williamstown, 01267, Massachusetts, USA

    • Jay Pasachoff


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