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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The Gravity of the Situation

By Phil Plait

Iâve been hearing about the movie Gravity for quite some time; it stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts, but thatâs all I knew until I saw the intensely terrifying trailer for it in the theater. A new trailer is now online that has some more detail, and itâs intenser and terrifyinger. Make sure to set it to hi-def and make it full screen.

Holy yikes. Iâm not sure exactly how this was done, but itâs all in one take. The graphics are stunning.

I like the mix of reality and movie-making, too. Note that the debris all passes silentlyâno air means no noise in space. All we hear are the voices of the astronauts, controllers on the ground, and the music. The director uses a nice little visual trick of having Bullock scream just as she passes in front of the camera on the wildly spinning robot arm, making us feel viscerally that sheâs closer to us.

The speed of the incoming debris is fairly plausible; orbital speeds are several kilometers per second, and due to the different angles and trigonometry involved, collisions can be faster or slower than that. The shrapnel and consequent tumbling of the debris feels right, too.

There are some compromises for the fiction. For one thing, of course, the shuttle is no longer flying. Thatâs OKâitâs a story. For another, the Manned Maneuvering Unit (the jet-pack spacesuit, if you prefer) Clooney is inâwhile an actual NASA deviceâdoesnât fly around that quickly; it would be very dangerous to make moves that rapidly on a spacewalk!

Thereâs a moment where an astronaut in the shuttle payload bay gets hit, and thereâs a swooshing sound as he gets flung to the end of his tether. However, that might simply be part of the music playing, put in on purpose again to trigger our more Earth-bound sense of motion.

Itâs been many years since Iâve used Hubble Space Telescope, but it was still jarring and upsetting seeing it destroyed like that. But wow, what a scene.

Iâve heard the movie is a real-time depiction of this disaster, and given this trailer, it looks like this will be a very intense flick. As usual I want to remain relatively in the dark about the plot; I prefer an existence of minimal spoilers in my life. But Iâll add my friend Kevin Grazier was the science adviser for Gravity, and heâs a professional planetary scientist and sci-fi fan (which is why we do the Science of Science Fiction panel every year at Comic-Con and âThe Phil and Kevin Showââwhere we dissect some aspect of science and/or science fictionâat Dragon*Con every year as well). So I expect this movie will be one very much worth seeing in the theater. It opens in October, and Iâll be one of the first in line.

Tip oâ the spacesuit visor to io9.

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