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NASA'S Dr. Tiffany Kataria tells us why PASSENGERS is such a great movie.

Dr. Kataria's research focuses on the atmospheric structure and dynamics of exoplanetary atmospheres. She utilizes general circulation models to understand the dynamics of super Earths and hot Jupiters over a wide range of parameters, and particularly how these models can be used to directly interpret exoplanetary spectra from ground- and space-based facilities. Currently, she is investigating the role of clouds and hazes in the atmospheres of a sample of hot Jupiter exoplanets that have been observed with HST and Spitzer. She intends on extending her modeling methodology to understanding clouds and hazes on small-mass planets, in anticipation of their detection and characterization with future facilities such as TESS, WFIRST, and JWST.

Interview By Christine Thompson

HAVE YOU SEEN THE MOVIE “PASSENGERS” YET? WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Dr. Kataria:  I did.  Generally speaking, it was interesting presenting on the panels on last week on the science in the film.  The screenwriter John Stasse was on the panel, and it sounded like he had actually done some pretty extensive research in terms of the hybernation technology and deep space travel technology, as far what our current technology is now and extrapolating that some distant time in the future when this movie takes place.

From that standpoint, those things are not overtly expressed, but they are seen with certain aspects of the hybernation pods, for example, or the construction of the spaceship. To that end he certainly has based that extrapolation off of real science.

But in terms of the space travel aspect, in terms of the science of the movie that I’m more concerned with, certainly it was accelerated for the purposes of the movie.  So the time it would take to get to this Homestead 2 planet was significantly shortened, but you don’t want them traveling in space for thousands of years because that would be a different movie.

If you want hard numbers for example, if you consider the Voyager I and II Spacecraft, which are  the two spacecraft in our own solar system that have traveled the furthest.  Voyager I has traveled to the edge and slightly beyond the solar system.  They traveled at a speed of 40,000 miles per hour.  Take that number, and have Voyager I and II travel to the nearest star with a potentially earth-massed planet, that would be Proxima Centauri b.  Proxima b is approximately 4.2 light years away, that’s about 25 trillion miles from our solar system.  

The closest star system to the Earth is the famous Alpha Centauri group. Located in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), at a distance of 4.3 light-years, this system is made up of the binary formed by the stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, plus the faint red dwarf Alpha Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has given us this stunning view of the bright Alpha Centauri A (on the left) and Alpha Centauri B (on the right), flashing like huge cosmic headlamps in the dark. The image was captured by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). WFPC2 was Hubble’s most used instrument for the first 13 years of the space telescope’s life, being replaced in 2009 by WFC3 during Servicing Mission 4.  Because these two stars are, together with their sibling Proxima Centauri, the closest to Earth, they are among the best studied by astronomers. And they are also among the prime targets in the hunt for habitable exoplanets.

Dr. Kataria: Take those numbers and crunch them in, it’s all very far right?  If you take the speed of the Voyager I and II spacecraft and I don’t remember the exact number but it’s on the order of something like a 40,000 years before such a spacecraft could actually arrive at Proxima b.  So it would take 40 years to get to interstellar space and another 40,000 years to get Proxima b.

So if you consider the fastest spacecraft that’s ever traveled through our solar system that would be Juno, which is currently orbiting Jupiter with a relative speed of 150,000 miles per hour (and that’s relative to Jupiter).  Consider that same speed, and say a spacecraft gets a gravity boost from some outer planet to get to Proxima Centauri again, well in that case it would only take us 18,000 years to get there.

AMFM:  WOW, “ONLY.”

Dr. Kataria:  Only 18,000, exactly.  So now we get to the movie and the spacecraft Avalon, which they say is traveling at 50 percent of the speed of light.  That’s 3 x 10 to the 8th power, so if you get to Proxima b at that speed it would take 3000 years.

AMFM:  NOT A HUNDRED YEARS.

Dr. Kataria:   Exactly, not a hundred years.  But I don’t fault them for doing that, It would be a much longer, different, more dire movie.  In terms of the space travel it needed to be accelerated quite significantly [for the movie…]
AMFM:  There is one part where they lose gravity in the ship, while Jennifer Lawrence’s character is in the swimming pool.  That was very scary, how realistic is this depiction?

Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora Lane in a screen capture from PASSENGERS

That is actually in fact how water would act.  In a small scale,  the astronauts on the international space station have done experiments like this.  Using  zero-g’s, they’ll squeeze out some water, and it will float, just like it’s shown in the movie.  They have actually done experiments where they inject something like food coloring in this bubble of water to see how that water molecules are very adhesive, and that behavior contributes to the spreading of the food coloring.  I think it’s a very realistic representation of what would happen in zero-g’s with that much water.

AMFM:  LET’S TALK NOW ABOUT SCIENCE FICTION AND SCIENCE FACT, AND WHERE THE TWO ARE MERGING.

Dr. Kataria:  Sure.

AMFM:  ANYONE WHO HAS BEEN ON THE INTERNET FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME CAN SEE THAT PEOPLE ARE TAKING ANYTHING THAT NASA DOES AND SPREADING RUMORS AND MISINFORMATION.  I DON’T KNOW IF YOU’VE SEEN THE ONE WHERE THERE APPEARS TO BE A FIGURE OF A WOMAN ON MARS…AND THERE’S ALL KINDS OF CRAZY THINGS OUT THERE. IT’S GOOD THAT PEOPLE ARE CURIOUS AND EXCITED, BUT DUE TO A LACK OF INFORMATION THEY START MAKING UP THEIR OWN STORIES.

Dr. Kataria: Oh yes, I’ve seen it.  They actually debunked one, the face on Mars – it was meant to be debunked – the camera orbiting Mars took a picture to prove that it in fact was not a face.

AMFM:  IT’S GREAT THAT PEOPLE ARE EXCITED, THATS WHY THIS KIND OF A MOVIE IS IMPORTANT AS IT MAY CONTRIBUTE TO MORE INTEREST ON THE PART OF THE PUBLIC TO THE LOVE OF SCIENCE.  MAYBE KIDS THAT SEE IT WILL BECOME INTERESTED IN YOUR FIELD, AND LATER ON BECOME PART OF A TEAM AT NASA.

Dr. Kataria: Sure!

AMFM:  WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP, WHAT SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES INFLUENCED YOU?

Dr. Kataria: That’s a good question, the first thing that springs to mind is a Disney Channel film, “Zenon, Girl Of The 21st Century” about a girl who lives in a spaceship and pops down to earth to save the day. The idea of space travel sounded fun.

I have to be honest, I wasn’t super exposed to Sci-Fi films when I was young, because I was easily scared.  I could see a film like “Contact”  scaring me when I was a kid. I should also mention that my older sister was a huge “Star Trek, Next Generation” fan so I was exposed to quite a lot of that from a young age.

AMFM:  THE REASON I ASK THIS QUESTION IS BECAUSE THERE’S A SCI-FI FESTIVAL IN AUSTIN, STARTED BY BEARS FONTE, WHO WRITES FOR AMFM MAGAZINE, IT’S CALLED OTHER WORLDS AUSTIN.  IT’S ONLY THREE YEARS OLD BUT GETTING EXPONENTIALLY BIGGER BECAUSE OF THE INTEREST IN SCI-FI. I NOTICED THAT SOME OF THE OTHER SCIENTISTS ACTUALLY SPEAK AT THE “CONS” LIKE DRAGONCON,   IT’S REALLY COOL THAT A FILM, OR CARTOON, OR MOVIE, CAN INFLUENCE PEOPLE TO WHERE THEY WOULD ACTUALLY WANT TO ENTER INTO THE STUDY OF SPACE TRAVEL.   WHAT YOU DO IS FASCINATING.  HOW DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN YOUR RESEARCH?

Dr. Kataria:  As a kid, as many kids are, I was always interested in space, I remember going to the library and picking up books about planets.  Going through high school and college, I was always interested in science and math, but it hadn’t really synthesized with me that it could be a career.  But when I was applying for college, I went to the Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space, and saw all the cool research that was going on, and realized you could actually apply all those skills to something like that.

That lit a light bulb for me.  Then, going through undergrad, and doing astronomy and planetary research (I did a summer internship at Harvard – I saw a lecture there by one of the professors about exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars.  That completely blew my mind, that we knew these things were out there and we could actually learn something about them.  So I came back to the person that I was working with as an undergrad, and said I want to work on exoplanets.  We started on a project together, and that led me down the path of looking for research in grad school akin to that school of thought.  So the turning point, as far as focusing on exoplanets, was in college.

I feel particularly fortunate, the field is booming right now, I think it’s a really good time to be a part of it, really exciting times.

 HOW FAR IN THE FUTURE DO YOU THINK SPACE TRAVEL WILL BE POSSIBLE “based on what’s coming online I’d say maybe two decades or so.  Depending on who you ask and what they’re working on, you’ll get a different answer.  I play the cautiously optimistic game.”

AMFM:  THAT’S AMAZING TO ME, AND YOU’RE SO LUCKY TO BE DOING THAT IN THIS TIME AND AGE. SO IN LAYMAN’S TERMS, WHAT IS YOUR RESEARCH ABOUT?

Dr. Kataria:   My research focuses on weather onexoplanets, exoplanets being planets that orbit other stars, using weather models that we use on earth to predict climate on other planets and in other solar systems.

From observations from the Hubble telescope and other telescopes available to astronomers that have been able to observe these exoplanets, we can actually see some evidence of the weather on other planets.  It’s actually a critical step to see what the large scale structures of things like the temperature and composition, what the planets are made up of, and the atmosphere.

AMFM: SO ULTIMATELY, WHAT IF THE PLANETS ARE HABITABLE BY OTHER HUMANS, RIGHT?

Dr. Kataria:   Certainly.  Yes, so that’s the natural end game.  I’ve been focusing on the planets that are more Jupiter or Neptune sized.  Once you hone those skills and tools, then of course you can extend those lessons learned to understanding smaller planets and those that would be more favorable for life.

AMFM: AND ARE YOU FINDING ANY NEARBY, RELATIVELY SPEAKING?

Dr. Kataria: That’s the tricky thing, we’ve found planets that seem to resemble earth in regards to size nad mass, but going from saying they are earth sized and earth mass and going to “they are earth-like” and potentially habitable is a whole other step all together.  It’s one thing to look and see if they are in the habitable zone or “Goldilocks Zone.”  We have found over 3000 exoplanets that have been discovered so far.  About a tenth of those are terrestrial and rocky like our earth, and that additional step to what makes them habitable, is a fraction of those.  You probably have about a handful of planets that could be habitable, but again we don’t truly know yet whether those are in fact truly habitable.

AMFM:  HOW FAR IN THE DISTANT FUTURE DO YOU THINK THIS WILL ACTUALLY HAPPEN?  I KNOW THERE’S NO WAY TO REALLY TELL, BUT CAN YOU EXTRAPOLATE A LITTLE BIT FROM THE RESEARCH YOU’VE BEEN DOING?

Dr. Kataria:   Not the next generation being launched soon, but the generation after that in terms of telescopes that scientists and engineers are developing, I’d give it until…well something could surprise us now, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for science fiction to become science reality sooner than we expect, it’s certainly been proven to be true in many cases.

Generally speaking, based on what’s coming online I’d say maybe two decades or so.  Depending on who you ask and what they’re working on, you’ll get a different answer.  I play the cautiously optimistic game.

Also, it depends on what you define as a planet that’s potentially habitable.  If you see a planet that potentially has ozone in it’s atmosphere like earth does, does that indicate that it’s a habitable planet?  That also depends on who you ask.  There are studies that show ozone could be a bio-marker, which indicates the presence or potential for life, but then you’ve also got equally as verified and reputable studies that say the opposite.

I think fundamentally whether or not detection occurs within the next ten years, say, I think in terms of whether or not there is a community consensus on whether or not that’s the case.  There is a lot of ebb and flow with regards to those discussions, and what a detection like that would truly mean.  Certainly from a telescope standpoint, in terms of what is coming online, the astrophysics community is preparing for the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey.

Essentially these are community based recommendations, what the most important science is. The higher ups at NASA will evaluate all of these studies and determine which are the most necessary for the next decade, what is the next big thing.  A couple of those studies are based on telescopes that will look for potentially habitable planets.  Of course, that would be over the next decade, and in terms of when they would actually launch, that would be in the 2030s.

The Spitzer Space Telescope came out of one of these decadal surveys.  Big telescopes that we’ve seen come online in the past thirty years have come out of these of these sorts of studies.  So the community is already thinking about the next generation of telescopes that could potentially identify without a shadow of a doubt some potentially habitable planets.

Spitzer Space Telescope (Courtesy of NASA)

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