Taking Position: Solving PNT problems on Mars

November 13, 2015  - By

In the novel The Martian, an astronaut must navigate around a duststorm using his wits.

By Tracy Cozzens
Managing Editor

TheMartian-cover-WLast year on my way home from ION  GNSS+, I spotted a bright orange book in the San Francisco airport. The
Martian, by Andy Weir, is now a major motion picture — a wonderful movie, but one that left out a unique PNT adventure.

The Martian explores how a lone astronaut struggles to survive long enough to be rescued from the Red Planet. Weir sets his story in the near future, and grounds it in real-world science. How can a man survive in a hostile environment far longer than the supplies left for him will hold out? What life-support systems can he engineer with the resources on hand?

From page one, I plunged into a gripping adventure — sometimes on the edge of my seat, sometimes thinking about engineering and science in new ways. I found myself re-reading explanations for astronaut Mark Watney’s resourceful solutions (shades of MacGyver) to make sure I understood what he was attempting and how it might actually work. But Weir also infuses the story with humor, so it’s never dry. It moves quickly, jumping between Watney’s situation on Mars and mission control on Earth.

One sequence in the book describes Watney’s ingenuity in solving a navigation problem in a truly GPS-denied environment, with only the limited supplies he has on hand. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that the solution includes old-school triangulation, with a few twists. With a fierce dust storm bearing down on him, Watney employs his knowledge of position, navigation and timing to aid in his own rescue. I was reminded of this as we at GPS World embark on our own adventure, reimagining our scope to include PNT and other location technologies. GPS, while still in our name, is far from the only solution.

While the movie is excellent, I suggest anyone who’s fascinated by the science in fiction pick up a copy of the novel that inspired it.

This is posted in From the Magazine, Opinions

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.