Magazine article Science News

Gravity: An Astronaut and a NASA Expert Consider the Reality of the Film's Space Dangers

Magazine article Science News

Gravity: An Astronaut and a NASA Expert Consider the Reality of the Film's Space Dangers

Article excerpt

In Alfonso Cuaron's new thriller Gravity, Sandra Bullock plays a reluctant astronaut who wants to complete her space walk to repair an instrument as quickly as possible. Her plans are foiled by a series of terrifying events that have surely crossed the minds of astronauts and space junkies. The stunning 3-D cinematography gives viewers the feeling of being in space and fuels the feeling of helplessness. Here are some challenges Bullock's character faces (spoiler alert) and their likelihood of happening in reality, according to NASA experts.

Russia blew up its own satellite and created a tsunami of space junk! Possible, but ...

In 2007 China used a guided missile to destroy one of its aging weather satellites, creating hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces of space junk. But the danger the debris posed was to other satellites, not astronauts, says Mark Uhran, who retired last year as NASA's director of the International Space Station. Most satellites are in geosynchronous orbits about 35,000 kilometers above Earth's surface, well above the roughly 400-kilometer altitudes of the ISS and most manned flights. Lower space junk can present a threat; NASA does track hundreds of thousands of objects in this zone, and the station's thrusters can change its orbit slightly to avoid collisions.

I got disconnected from my ship! Extremely unlikely

NASA can't prepare for every nightmare scenario, so it relies on a "failure modes and effects analysis" to determine an event's likelihood. …

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