Movie/Technology Review - Gravity, A Classic Movie

Movie/Technology Review
"Let's Get to it and Make Space a Safer Place for Us"


Hi friends,

It has been a while but we are extremely pleased to come back to you with a review of a superb space movie - Gravity.  If you have not seen it, you definitely should. In 3D. In IMAX. The visuals are that amazing. And the acting is good too. Although we must confess that we did not see it in IMAX, we were left dumbstruck. We know you have all been pre-occupied and obsessed with the news of Mangalyaan and this movie came out just before the launch so you may have missed it but now there is no reason not to go!


Gravity- A Classic Movie


As usual, for us spacehounds, what we are interested in are the   technological aspects and whether technology can enable us to go where no man has gone before.

Fair warning: some plot details will come out in the review so if you want to go see it while we wait, go ahead. We are not going anywhere. We shall wait.



Shall we begin? The movie starts with a statement on the inky   expanse of space; that hundreds of kilometers above Earth, the temperature can fluctuate over 400 degrees - from sub zero to above   boiling. This sets the tone for the movie - Space is a harsh environment. As if we don't know. We know that even on Earth's surface we cannot survive in certain harsh climates for long. Below  the surface? Not a chance. Without technology assisting us, we would get crushed by the water pressure or easily get buried in the deeper   mines. Clearly, not only must our planet be in a habitable zone in a star system but human beings must live in an even narrower zone than that to live comfortably.

With rapid progress in technology in the last century, human beings have been able to access previously undreamt of places: the Mariana Trench, the peak of Everest, the moon. Nevertheless there are places on Earth itself that are inaccessible, for example Earth's core. So what about places that are equally harsh such as the surface of the sun? That will take some time. In the meanwhile there are several equally pressing problems.

All these awe-inspiring trips have so far been short term  jaunts. Longer term visits are not feasible as of now since the cost of preserving human life outside the narrow belt on Earth is very high. This is hammered home in an outstanding fashion in Gravity. A  team of astronauts are up in orbit for almost a week repairing a section of the Hubble Telescope when they run into trouble. What trouble? Space debris. In space, a particle in motion can maintain its speed almost indefinitely (unless captured by the gravity of a celestial body). As any high school physics student can tell you,  the kinetic energy of a particle is proportional to the square of its velocity. So even a tiny particle of a few millimeters in size but moving at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour can punch through a solid object (such as a human being) like radioactive particles passing through a tin foil. A small hole in a vital organ (and there are several to choose from in most living beings) can result in death in minutes. So space debris is a very serious concern. And this comes out clearly in the movie.



  As any aircraft pilot will tell you, getting bearings when lost is difficult. GPS is very helpful in that respect. Getting your  bearings is a lot more difficult when in Space. There is no GPS in Space. Unless there is a clear nearby reference point, you cannot make a judgement on how close or far your target is. So potentially, you can drift forever if you lose this anchor point. Near Earth you have the Earth itself but since Earth rotates and revolves, it is again possible to make mistakes. In Gravity, the astronauts face these problems once they lose a reference to their spacecraft and drift.

  As we mentioned earlier, a particle in space can maintain its speed almost indefinitely. Newton's first law of motion states that a body in motion continues to be in that state unless acted upon by an external force. Imagine you are running at a speed of 8kmph and suddenly you crash into a wall or a tree. How much would it hurt? A drifting astronaut can easily do that. What is required is some braking (and of course some accelerating) mechanism. Some type of propulsion system. In Gravity, one of the astronauts uses compressed air in a tank on his back to navigate when adrift. Unfortunately, this has to be used sparingly as the quantity of air on your back is limited. Yes, objects in space are weightless but they do have mass, momentum and volume. Carrying massive objects on your back is not easy or safe and therefore the quantity has to be limited.

  One of the important lessons postulated in Gravity is that there needs to be standardized mechanisms for entry, exit and control of orbiting spacecrafts so that astronauts from any nationality can operate them. As mankind becomes more adventurous and more expensive and longer missions are planned, this will become increasingly important. Let's hope this is sooner rather than later.

  So where is technology lacking today? At innumerable places! We don't have precise physical models that can simulate how space debris would move and affect a mission. We need physicists to work on it. We don't have suits that can prevent small space particles from creating holes in astronauts.  We need material science engineers developing usable but extremely protective suits.  Would it not be cool to have suits that would allow an astronaut to safely drop to Earth if something went wrong up in orbit? Suits that would inject chemicals to keep an astronaut functioning when otherwise it would lead to her/his death? We don't have backpack sized propulsion systems that last 1 million maneuvers. We need onboard computers with gyroscopes that can track an astronaut's position in space even as an astronaut drifts and rotates in any of the three dimensions. We need multiple space stations at different altitudes above Earth that can be remotely controlled to send automated vehicles for astronaut recovery in emergencies. We need a lunar base that is stocked and maintained to host astronauts and trans-stellar voyagers. We need refueling stations (electric and liquid propulsion).  In short, there is a lot of work to be done.


So let's get to it and make Space a safer place for us.



Azeem Khan


0 #1 Sudheer 2014-02-17 07:01
Nice write up, Azeem. appreciate the way you connect what we learn in school/college to what we see in action in this movie.
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