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August 16, 2022

Things Sci-Fi Movies Get Completely Wrong About Space

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Both real and fictional astronauts depend on the ability to communicate quickly with their home planet. Wireless communication signals travel much faster than any known physical object, but they’re still limited to the universal speed limit of 186,000 miles per second, or the speed of light (via NASA). In the history of spaceflight, the furthest distance a human has traveled from Earth is 248,655 miles, which was achieved by NASA’s Apollo 13 crew in 1970 (via Space.com). This means that in this extreme case, astronauts had to wait about a second and a half to receive a message sent from Earth.

However, science fiction stories set in space often depict astronauts communicating across much, much greater distances than any real person has ever traveled. In many science fiction universes that involve faster than light travel, such as Star Trek or Star Wars, it is also taken for granted that distant planets and spacecraft can communicate in real time. That’s practically as far-fetched as warp drive.

Consider that even if close neighbors Earth and Mars are closest — about 35 million miles apart — it would take about four minutes to send a signal from one planet to the other. Imagine if this level of latency were applied to conversations between parties light years apart and any sort of interstellar communication would be utterly impracticable.

However, some science fiction films use the difficulty of interstellar communication to increase narrative tension. For example, in Alien, the crew of the Nostromo cannot question their order to land on a dangerous planet because waiting for an answer would mean adding years to their journey.



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