To the Stars… Or At Least the Outer Solar System

This week’s feature film was Ad Astra, which, by the way, is a fantastic title for a movie. It’s Latin for “to the stars,” though it is commonly part of a longer phrase, “ad astra per aspera” or “to the stars through hardship.”

Let’s start with the fact that the plot of the movie centers around a mission to answer one of man’s ultimate questions – are we alone in the Universe? That is a question mankind has been pondering in one form or another at least back to the time of ancient Greece, but only in the last century or so have we developed the technological tools to really begin to try to answer it. The movie imagines a “not too distant future” in which that capability has been pushed forward considerably.

The first evidence of this comes in the opening scene of the movie when the main character, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), climbs out a portal to work on the International Space Tower, a kind of space-station-like platform, but on really, REALLY tall stilts. We’re talking tall enough that the station tower appears to extend at least into Earth’s stratosphere (roughly 30 km above the ground). For reference, the tallest manmade structure in existence today is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is about 830 m tall, less than 3% of the apparent height of the Space Tower. Why anyone would want to build a space tower instead of a space station is never addressed in the movie.

The purported purpose of the Space Tower is to communicate with alien civilizations, should any exist. Why the Space Tower needs to be built so tall isn’t explained, though presumably it’s so that Earth’s atmosphere won’t interfere with the communications. Earth’s atmosphere is opaque to certain types of radiation, such as gamma rays, X-rays, and most ultraviolet radiation, all of which is good for those of us living on the surface of this planet. But that would be bad if alien life forms were trying to communicate with us using these types of radiation. However, NASA and many other space agencies already have telescopes in space monitoring for UV, X-ray, and gamma ray emission, not so much from aliens as from natural sources such as stars, galaxies, and black holes. So, receiving a signal wouldn’t be a problem, but presumably, the Space Tower would give us the capability to answer any messages we receive.

While the Space Tower is there to communicate with extraterrestrials, another mission in the movie, the Lima Project, is designed to actively look for signs of intelligent life beyond our solar system. For reasons that are not very well justified in the movie, this project is stationed out in the outer parts of our solar system, absurdly close to Neptune as it turns out. Why that’s better than somewhere closer to Earth is hard to fathom.

The other thing that this movie, like many others, fails to appreciate is that the vast majority of space exploration missions are unmanned. There are a whole host of reasons for this: people don’t tolerate space very well, people are expensive, people need food and water and have to take breaks from time to time. For monotonous tasks like combing through 300 billion stars looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life, machines just do the job better. And people on Earth can always check what the machines are doing without actually being right next to them. Heck, the Opportunity rover drove around Mars for almost 14 years controlled by commands sent from people back on Earth. Without giving away too much of the plot, the climatic scenes in Ad Astra provide additional reasons why maybe it would be better not to send people on long, lonely missions to the outer solar system.

In a similar vein, the movie never made clear why Roy McBride needed to travel to Mars in order to attempt to contact his father who was on Project Lima out beyond Neptune. One possibility is that the writer assumed that since Mars is further from the Sun than the Earth, then it must be closer to Neptune. This would be true if all the planets were neatly lined up on one side of the Sun, but they generally aren’t. They orbit around, such that the relative distances among the planets depend on where they all are in their orbits. If Earth and Neptune are both on the same side of the Sun with Mars on the opposite side, then, in that instance, it would be faster (and certainly cheaper) to call Neptune directly from Earth.

Another issue with the phone call to Roy’s dear, lost daddy is that it’s going to be a slow conversation. That’s because the light travel time from Mars to Neptune (how long it would take a signal to get there) would be about 4 hours. A reply would take another 4 hours to travel back. If Roy McBride sent his father a message at the start of the workday, then he shouldn’t expect an answer before the end of the day. So, why was everyone standing around like they were waiting for something?

Another common misconception in space movies has to do with how crowded or empty space is. People just don’t seem to appreciate just how BIG space is. Like, REALLY big. Those rings of Neptune? They are probably made up of maybe a trillion particles larger than 1 cm. That sounds like a lot of particles, but they are spread over a volume of roughly a billion billion m3. That means EACH PARTICLE occupies a volume of a million m3, all by itself. Put another way, the average distance between particles (larger than 1 cm) would be about 100 m (a whole football field between each pebble that makes up the rings!). In the scene where Roy McBride needed to fly through the rings, he wouldn’t have needed his shield; he’d have had to be extremely unlucky to hit even one particle.

I’m going to end with a common complaint about so many of the movies we watch in class – why is it that nuclear bombs are the solution to all problems? In the particular case of Ad Astra, Roy McBride uses a kick from a nuclear explosion to propel his ship back home. This is implausible for a number of reasons, but just looking at it from an energetics perspective, a large nuclear warhead from the current U.S. arsenal would have about 1 megaton (4 thousand trillion Joules) of potential energy stored in it. If we are generous and assume ALL of that potential energy gets converted into the kinetic energy of McBride’s ship, then assuming the ship has a mass only three times that of the lunar module the Apollo astronauts rode to the Moon, then McBride’s ship could reach a max speed of 830,000 km/hr, which seems fast, but at that rate, it would take him 215 days or about 7 months to reach Earth – plenty of time to contemplate his (mis)deeds.

In the end, Ad Astra, like so many mass-market movies before it, has played fast and loose with the laws of physics. The sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are good movies that also have good science. A short list of examples would include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, Apollo 13, The Martian, and Interstellar.

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17 Responses to To the Stars… Or At Least the Outer Solar System

  1. Maverick Raymundo says:

    I agree with the flawed space tower idea and how hazardous it would be. I guess it was interesting to see the psychological effects on a person for the long term and the reason we always go with machines. I don’t think an oral journal or a quick medical check-up can prepare anyone for space such as Donald Sutherland. Research was sacrificed in the realistic phsyical space of Neptunes rings for dramatic suspense. We as the audience should also just accept that the rocket had a navigation route around the asteroid belt without propulsion. Roy McBride’s ex (Liv Tyler) also acted in Armageddon which is cool.

  2. Anthony Forcella says:

    I actually never thought of the International Space Tower being used to communicate with alien intelligent life! Its a actually a really smart inference to make since the purpose of it was never really made that clear. That in my opinion should have been given more focus throughout the movie. Like you said it has been one of humanity’s biggest questions! However, in the movie, it just seemed like a lame excuse for Brad Pitt’s character to go to space and travel to Neptune to get to his father which in my opinion is a poor and disappointing use of such an interesting plot device.

  3. Cameron Collyer says:

    The movie claims that the reason for Roy Mcbride’s father, Clifford McBride, is orbiting Neptune in Lima is because at the distance of Neptune, the ship is outside the heliosphere of the sun. Therefore, the alternating magnetic field of the sun won’t disrupt possible outside communication in the form of radiation that is being sent towards our solar system. Neptune is about 30 AU from the sun and the heliosphere of the sun actually extends about 123 AU. So, in the grand scheme of things, Clifford McBride could have just been on the Earth or the International Space Station doing similar research without living in complete isolation.

  4. Cameron Collyer says:

    The movie claims that the reason Clifford McBride is sent to Neptune on Lima is so that there can be something outside of the heliosphere of the sun looking for signals of communication in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Although the sun can disrupt certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation due to it’s alternating magnetic field, the heliosphere of the sun ends about 123 AU away from the sun and Neptune is about 30AU away. Therefore, Clifford McBride didn’t have to isolate himself on Lima and kill an entire team of astronauts because they all could have just been doing the same research closer to Earth.

  5. Wendy Bedenbaugh says:

    I do agree that the travel to Mars seemed very useless in terms of plot, but then again it seemed like almost everything introduced in the movie was useless. The space monkey, the psychological tests, that one random girl that got introduced. Even the characters didn’t have good development, we only knew a total of 1 fact about each character in the movie. Overall, the movie was very scattered and useless.

  6. Glory Mayreis says:

    Basically, the whole movie is just a bunch of unexplained, and some unnecessary, details thrown together in hopes to make something cohesive. That didn’t exactly work, physics-wise or in general, since it just wasn’t a good movie. Still just majorly thrown off by the space monkey.

  7. Sutton Behie says:

    So first of all, I think I will rate this movie PGP-13. It wasn’t retch, but it wasn’t perfect with the physics(like the bomb scene and flying through Neptune’s rings scene). What I really didn’t like about the movie was the plot. We know about the Lima project and the search for alien signals, and we know that Brad Pitt’s dad in the movie killed other people on his crew. The whole movie just seemed to focus on getting to Neptune, killing his dad and terminating the project. It would’ve been a super cool movie if Brad had arrived at Neptune to find that his father had received some interesting signals from possible alien life. I really was hoping for a signal and for the Lima project to be the main focus of the movie. This movie just seemed to be about daddy issues, as you stated.

  8. Alexis Miller says:

    You have brought up very interesting points. While watching the movie, I also was confused as to why they chose to communicate to Neptune through Mars… It was fairly unnecessary…I guess they were just trying to prove the point that they were further along in the whole space journey and more colonized in the solar system than we actually are currently.

    Another really important statement that you made is that most space exploration missions are unmanned. In my opinion, there are times that humans should go into space, but for something like looking for other life, we do not necessarily need humans roaming the solar system. It does, like you said, cost a lot of money and with that comes a lot of other important survival supplies to take care of. Also, human error can negatively impact these missions. Think about it, yes, human error can still drastically occur with unmanned missions; however, once you add humans going on the mission in the equation, there becomes a need for so many extra variables, that can range from simple factors as in food, to a much more complex reliability on how the human will go forth in completing (or failing,) the mission. So, it was interesting how they were just throwing people up in space for jobs that could have been completed with less hassle, not to mention more efficiently, without them.

    I am so glad you pointed out how they were standing around waiting for a response from his dad, and it seemed as if they instantly got one, because that threw me off more than most of the other things in this movie. It was really odd how it was implied that the message sent to his dad was instantly received…

  9. Taylor Poole says:

    Something the I found interesting is that when the group was traveling out on the moon a lot of what they were doing was producing sound. Even though there are no particles on the moon for sound to travel through almost everything that happened had sound to it. I am sure they did this to keep the movie from being silent, but that is not very realistic.

  10. Logan Yenser says:

    Overall, while the movie was visually stunning, I just felt like it was too long and the characters were not that compelling to sustain interest over its 2 hour run time. The only interesting thing to actually happen during the movie was the scene on the moon with the space pirates. I would have liked for the movie to spend more time developing the characters and working on some actual plot instead of having scenes that last a long time with nothing happening in them. (Fun fact: The person that played Brad Pitt’s scorned lover was the one who portrayed the daughter of Harry in Armageddon). If you look at the reviews on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, the ones that are negative all have one thing in common: that the movie was boring. There were also instances with product placement that had no place to be in the movie to begin with. For example, I saw the brands Coca-Cola, Subway, DHL Moving, and Virgin Atlantic all represented, when there was really no need for them to be there in the first place. I would have forgiven most of this if the ending had left me satisfied for the right reasons. If the movie had chosen to have Brad Pitt’s father be a figment of his imagination due to the prolonged isolation and found to be dead in real life, that would have been a more satisfying conclusion to that storyline. Instead, it feels as if they took the easy way out with just killing his father in outer space. Overall, I would give this movie 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.

  11. Cali Lafond says:

    I couldn’t help myself singing “space monkey, funky monkey” tune into my head. Why random primates involved idk… The physics of this movie? Forget about it. It was just a random bunch of mathematics with no actual meaning explanation or solution to it. Overall this movie was ok, but I would not recommend it.

  12. Jacob Chait says:

    I agree with you on the fact that traveling to mars seemed pretty questionable but so was having a team of people travel all the way to neptune. I mean really? They would be about 12 years older so it doesn’t make sense they send such old people. Anyway besides the actual mission I think the plot was a little sporadic and confusing at some points and they really just wanted to finish the movie. I’d rate this movie pgp-13 because the physics weren’t off too bad in some parts but other scenes like using a nuclear bomb to propel your space craft back to earth seems pretty far fetched. Overall enjoyed going to the theater, but enjoyed the movie a little less.

  13. Lucas Sayer says:

    I completely agree on very point here. Some things presented in the movie can seem realistic at times to someone who wouldn’t know anything about space but some of them can’t fool anyone. Everything is just casually introduced with no explanation and it’s very frustrating to me when I expected to get an interesting space movie. Instead I got an extremely far-fetched drama with dry characters and an un-clear plot. If you’re going to make it more about the characters at least give a peak at their story. By the third act I was really questioning what I was watching and it was just a poor movie with a huge budget. I did enjoy viewing it in a theatre but its good the tickets were free.

  14. Jeff Luecken says:

    I agree that there are a lot of things that just feel off. Why does Roy need to go to Mars? Because the movie wants to show a Mars base. Why does this movie need rabid monkeys? Because they need a scene for the trailer that has action. The movie seemed all over the place with all of the concepts going nowhere. The physics was okay (PGP-13) but still not great. The space between the rocks in the rings of Neptune was a reasonable because I had not realized until it was pointed out to me, but the nuke propelling the spaceship was a little much. I agree that it was in general a sub-par movie.

  15. Colin Kane says:

    I completely agree with your assessment of the film and one part of the review really struck me. When pointing out the flaws in the plan to communicate with the Lima Project from Mars, you mentioned the orbits of both planets. That was not something that I, and apparently the screenwriters, completely forgot to even consider. Unless the plants were in perfect alignment, Mars would not be closer to Neptune than Earth would be. Even if it was closer from Mars to Neptune, it would be so much more practical to send the signal from Earth. Electromagnetic waves travel faster than any man made rocket ever could so taking the trip to Mars and then sending the signal would not only take way longer than it would to send the message from Earth, but would be exponentially more expensive.

  16. Seth Simmons says:

    I also agree with the absurdity of the space tower as well as how unnecessary some ideas and plot lines that were never expanded on throughout the movie. My favorite being the space monkey attack and an honorable mention being the space pirates on the moon.

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