A death-defying mountain climb, a trek across rugged terrain and a close call with a pit of quicksand are just some of the near-death experiences in store for viewers this weekend in Newburyport filmmaker Mark Davis' newest documentary on Mars.
"Five Years on Mars" — the Emmy-nominated Davis' third documentary on the red planet — airs Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel.
Davis has followed the progress of the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which were dispatched to the planet more than four years ago to search for signs that life once existed there.
In his previous documentaries, Davis chronicled the launch of the rovers as well as their discoveries on Mars in the early days of what was initially intended to be a short-term science mission.
His latest film highlights the adventures of the tiny robots he has come to know and love as part of what has been called one of the greatest adventures of the Space Age.
"The first day I went to (NASA's) Jet Propulsion Lab (in California) in June of 2002, engineers were just building the rovers and having terrible problems with landing," Davis said. "I followed the process for a year and a half until (the first rover) landed in 2004 and stayed in the labs for 4 1/2 years."
Last summer, National Geographic approached Davis with a proposal to create a documentary on the work of the rovers over the past four years.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to go back over the old ground," he said, "but when I starting looking into what had happened, I found it's an incredible adventure story."
In "Five Years on Mars," Davis paints a vivid picture of the existence of the Mars rovers and hopes viewers are able to marvel at their lives in space. The rovers were only expected to collect data over 90 Martian days, called "sols." But they have gone on to survive on Mars for almost five years.
"People are not aware and have lost track of what is going on up there," he said. "These rovers were only intended to (travel) one kilometer, and they now go seven miles. They weren't expected to last more than three months and they have been up there for years."
Davis worked with friend Dan Maas, who used cutting-edge animation to create realistic images of the planet and the journey of the rovers. Maas also did the animation for Davis' previous documentaries for NOVA and for the IMAX film, "Roving Mars."
To ensure images of the topography on Mars were accurate and realistic, Davis said animators turned to data collected by the rovers and satellite orbiters.
"The photos are realistic animations of the actual terrain being operated on," he said. "When you combine the three-dimensional terrain with actually visuals of the rovers, it is quite realistic in high resolution."
Davis' two previous Mars documentaries — "Mars Dead or Alive" and "Welcome to Mars" aired on PBS as NOVA specials. "Mars Dead or Alive" was nominated for an Emmy award in 2004. And Davis was among the winners of the 2004 American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism awards for his work on the pieces.
"I got into scientific documentaries because I like doing films on topics I know nothing about," Davis said. "It helps keep in mind my audience."
Through his time at the NASA lab in Pasadena, Calif., over the past 61/2 years, Davis said he got closely acquainted with the scientists and engineers who work with the rovers on a daily basis. He was especially moved by the emotional attachments they developed to the rovers as they regularly monitored their health.
In addition, Davis said he learned about the problems experienced by the rovers, including how the dust on the planet coats their solar panels, which are used to generate power.
"They thought the dust would kill the rovers early because they are solar powered," Davis said. "But because Mars is a windy place, the dust that collects on the panels is blown away and the rovers are kept alive."
Davis said the precision with which the scientists and engineers operate is something he has taken into his own filmmaking, noting problem-solving is the key to success.
"How you land something on Mars and basically hit a moving target 35 million miles away within a half mile of the target is really incredible," he said. "Just how a project is devised, planned, tested and pulled off has helped me think of my own work and has taught me a lesson in succeeding and not screwing up when it matters."
Davis will continue to create films about scientific subjects as he awaits the launch of a larger rover in the next year.
"For me, telling this story is the most wonderful way of closing the loop on my experiences with the rover project," Davis said of "Five Years on Mars." "I hope people will have a new appreciation and understanding of what life on Mars in like in the eyes of a robot."
If You Watch
What: "Five Years on Mars"
When: Sunday at 8 p.m.
Where: The National Geographic Channel