Category Archives: Movies

Spaceships of the Expanse

I have been enjoying “The Expanse” series by James Corey. It’s a space opera set a couple hundred years from now, after humans have colonized and populated the moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, and outer planet moons. Spaceships journey between these worlds, complex engineering projects remake asteroids into habitable stations, and space navies boost from place to place to fight space pirates. I think it’s great because it captures what I wish for humanity’s future: that we will go out and colonize other worlds, that we will be able to undertake engineering projects for the greater good, and that we will become robust enough to weather grand challenges – things we see in the world today as global warming, income inequality, nuclear proliferation, and the like. In many ways, the first three books are about the tension between such grand visions and idealism, and politics and profiteering.

Leviathan Wakes cover, from Orbit

The books are soon going to be a TV series, and I am very much looking forward to see its depiction of space and space travel. (With the exception of parts of the first book, wherein Corey tried to write something horror-ish by being as gross as he could think to be. Whatever. Those are not the good parts of the book.) Corey steered clear of many sci-fi tropes that would have a big impact on the appearance of the series – no artificial gravity here! – and he made sure to build aspects of spacecraft engineering and operations into the cultures he depicted. For example, “Belters” nod and shrug with whole-arm gestures, so that they can be seen when wearing a suit. A good chunk of the books take place in zero gravity. Hopefully that will translate to the screen!

I’m going to take a look at some of the spacecraft engineering concepts in “The Expanse.” Let’s start with the most science-fictional, and therefore least plausible:

The Epstein Drive

Corey very quickly establishes that the powerhouse of his whole solar-system-wide civilization is the “Epstein Drive,” which is some kind of fusion engine for boosting spaceships around. It allows craft to thrust continuously from one planet or asteroid to another, accelerating constantly for half the trip and then decelerating constantly for the second half. This trajectory allows relatively quick travel times between worlds. Conveniently for crew health, and for TV production, the engine also provides “thrust gravity” inside the spaceship. Ships are therefore designed with decks in “stacks” above the engine with a ladder or lift giving crew access between decks, like in a skyscraper.

A fusion engine isn’t a crazy idea, especially not for a civilization a couple hundred years in the future. The problem is propellant. No matter how powerful or efficient your engine is, you will always need to be chucking propellant out the back to sustain this kind of thrust profile.

Picture this: you’re sitting in the middle of a frozen pond. The ice is perfectly frictionless, so you can’t walk or crawl or anything to get back to solid ground. What you do have is a bag full of baseballs. If you throw a baseball away from you, then you have given it some amount of momentum (mass times velocity). Your body gets an equal and opposite amount of momentum: you start sliding in the direction opposite your throw, but much more slowly than the baseball (because its mass is small while yours is big). Great! You have a way to get to shore. But you don’t want to wait out this long slide, so you throw another baseball. This speeds you up a little. Another throw speeds you up a little more. You can keep throwing baseballs until you decide that you’re going fast enough that you can wait it out. That’s basically how spacecraft work now: they thrust for a little, and then coast for a long period of time until they get to their next destination. But what if you wanted to keep thrusting the whole time? You will need more baseballs. Lots more baseballs. You are going to have to keep throwing them, constantly, to keep accelerating yourself.

Writing that a spaceship has a fusion drive instead of a chemical rocket is like replacing yourself in this analogy with a major league baseball pitcher. They will put more momentum into each pitch, and so they’ll go faster across the ice. In other words, their thrust is more efficient. But they will still run out of baseballs at some point, and then they must coast without thrust. The spaceship must stop its burn, cease thrust gravity, and wait several more months before getting to their destination. In the end, high thrust – and, with it, appreciable thrust gravity – should only be active for a short time in any space voyage through the Expanse. As we are learning with ion propulsion nowadays, it can often be most efficient to run at a low level of thrust, but sustain that for a very long time. But that doesn’t give our characters a convenient floor to stand on! So Corey put the word “Epstein” in front of “fusion drive.” “Epstein,” in this case, is short for “magic.” It’s a kind of magic that lets Corey have thrust without propellant, so that he can simultaneously achieve short (astronomically speaking) travel times and keep his crew in thrust gravity.

For a more physically realistic depiction of relationship between fuel, propellant, and thrust, consider Neal Stevenson’s spaceship Ymir in Seveneves.

The Way Ships Move

In the Expanse universe, spaceships are flipping around all the time to vector their engines in the correct direction to change their velocity. And we often read references to what the thrusters are doing on ships. This is all good. But the ships don’t really move the way real spacecraft move.

First of all, orbits barely enter the picture. One scene in Leviathan Wakes involves a character plotting out the likely trajectories of a certain ship, but other than that, the characters can go just about anywhere they want to go as long as they have a good ship to call theirs. Absent the Epstein “magic,” that behavior isn’t really plausible.

Second, though, is that Corey imagines his spaceships rotate themselves around in the same way just about all science fiction authors do: with thrusters. That’s not what most modern spacecraft do! They actually use wheels. Spin a wheel clockwise, and Newton’s third law kicks in: there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The spacecraft spins counterclockwise. Devices that function as I just described are, therefore, called reaction wheels. Other wheel-based devices that take advantage of gyroscopic torques can give satellites quite a lot of agility – without using any propellant. I suspect that the reason why these realistic actuators don’t often appear in science fiction is that there are no obvious cues to their operation: no thruster spurts, no blue glows shining out of emitters, nothing. The ship just starts to rotate.

I was happy to read that Corey’s spaceships are all native to space. There are not many cases where a ship lands, and in those cases, it’s always a small one. The heroes’ ship does once, on Ganymede. With surface gravity comparable to Earth’s moon, that’s not such a stretch for a fusion-drive starship.

28 June 15 Edit: Darn it, I just started Cibola Burn and about the fourth thing that happens is that the Rocinante lands on an Earth-size planet and immediately takes off again. Minus points for that!

The Battles

Space combat plays a big role in the plot of the Expanse books. And it’s a generally great depiction of space combat! Lots of the tactics and technologies are grounded in plausible physics. Ships shoot missiles and guns at each other, the effective range of a torpedo is determined by how close your ship needs to be to make sure the enemy ship doesn’t have time to shoot your torpedo down, the crew all gets into space suits at the beginning of the battle, there’s a ton of electronic warfare activity, and the battles wax and wane in intensity as the spaceships maneuver and orbit.

I’ve long thought that the most effective weapons in a space battle would be simple kinetic slugs or flak shells. My reasoning is simple: the speeds of objects in space are fast enough that a relatively small piece of junk can easily blast a hole through sensitive components. This is exactly why present-day spacecraft engineers – like me – worry about micrometeoroid strikes, space debris, and the Kessler syndrome. In the Expanse, the ships all fire torpedoes or guns at each other. And the results of weapon strikes are devastating: it only takes one torpedo or a few well-placed railgun slugs to take out a ship. Ships blast electronic garble at each other to screw up their targeting systems, but in the end the best defense is not getting hit – so we see the pilot do a lot of evasive maneuvering. I think this is all on the right track from a physics standpoint, though a real space battle with “Expanse-style” ships would probably take a lot longer, involve more orbit dynamics, and require a lot more computerized coordination.

There are two rather implausible elements to the battles. First is the Epstein Drive, which makes the combatants’ maneuvering matter a lot more than orbit dynamics. Second is the “juice,” a drug cocktail that keeps people alive and functioning when exposed to high gee forces. As a way to deal with high gees, the “juice” is just about as good a science-fictiony way to do it as any other, including immersing people in fluid as in The Forever War or inventing some kind of mythological inertial dampener. In the end, though, humans are squishy, precious cargo, and fighting full-on battles with them inside your spaceships doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Stealthy Spaceships

(There are some minor spoilers in this section!)

A plot point early on in the first book, Leviathan Wakes, revolves around the appearance of a stealth spaceship. This doesn’t involve any cloaking devices like in the Star Trek universe. Rather, a few spaceships avoid detection by (1) being painted black, which hides them in the visible spectrum, (2) having surfaces that absorb or scatter radar, which hides them in radio wavelengths, and (3) radiating heat out the side of the ship facing away from the enemy, which hides them in infrared. Much as it might give some people heartburn, this is all fairly plausible! The first two points are easy to imagine based on what we know about about the present-day Air Force. Though its not as familiar to the general public, the third item is actually something that comes up all the time in spacecraft design: especially if your satellite has sensitive electronics – like an infrared telescope – the design will include coolers, heaters, baffles, insulation, and radiators designed to emit heat in directions pointing both away from the precious detectors and away from the sun. Even the International Space Station has radiators that rotate to keep them pointing away from the sun most of the time. (The reason is that if the radiators face the sun, they’ll start to absorb heat into the station instead of emitting it out!) Such a “thermal management system” could be designed to, with the other stealth elements, give one side of a spacecraft the appearance of a cool, black spot indistinguishable from the rest of empty space.

A stealth spaceship wouldn’t be easy to build, and it wouldn’t be perfectly invisible – just harder to detect than normal to a lone adversary. And, in fact, both those points are relevant to the spaceships in the Expanse. One crewmember is able to spot a stealth ship on his sensors, but he doesn’t know what it is or how to respond to it. And that’s really all it takes for the stealth ship to accomplish its mission, after all! The very difficulty of constructing a stealth spacecraft actually makes the stealthiness more effective. The characters who cannot conceive that somebody could field a stealth spaceship end up more prone to falling prey to it.

Spaceship stealth makes an appearance other times, as well. At least twice in the series, the heroes’ ship hides itself by masquerading as something it’s not.

Spin Gravity

Lots of space stations in the Expanse, including some embedded in asteroids, spin to provide their inhabitants with centrifugal “gravity.” This is an idea that’s been around the aerospace and science fiction communities for decades, and Corey executes it well. In fact, one of the things I enjoy about the books is how the plot moves between the different environments of planetary gravity, low lunar gravity, spin gravity, and (“Epstein”-based though it may be) thrust gravity. The different gravitational environments contribute to different cultures, and they put the characters in interesting and different situations. If the TV series sticks to the books, we’re going to see low-gee gunfights and damage control teams solving problems in microgravity. Regularly.

All the stations with spin gravity are large, which is the right choice. It means they don’t have to spin at a dizzying rate to get a comfortable level of gs for their inhabitants. There is another benefit, in that the weird non-intuitive kinematics of rotations – Coriolis forces – have less of an effect the larger the rotating space station. These effects can be truly weird, and it can be hard even for physicists to bookkeep all the terms correctly to model them. Something that might happen if you were standing in a spinning space station is that if you drop something, you will actually see it follow a curving path to the floor, and it won’t land at your feet. You will also see it fall at a different speed than you would expect based on the gravity you experience. (I’m planning to write something up separately to go into all the details.)

Anyway, suffice it to say that spin gravity is a strange environment and Corey, like most science fiction writers, doesn’t go into all the details. But spin is the right idea for giving gravity to spacefarers, and I can’t wait to see how the visual effects team on the Expanse interprets all the spinning structures.

All in all, I’m thinking that The Expanse will be good for science fiction on TV. It will be a show with a time period a bit closer to us than, say, Star Trek. And the show will have a wide diversity of environments to challenge the characters. I am looking forward to seeing their depictions of spacecraft and how they move around in space!

“Europa Report”

I just watched “Europa Report.” Finally; I’d been holding off because it gets categorized as horror and I didn’t want random slasher aliens invading my sci-fi suspense thrillers. Also I don’t like horror movies in general.

But I have to say that, first, the movie was a terrific portrayal of near-future space exploration; the filmmakers were clearly watching a lot of NASA TV and boning up on their science and engineering before they started. Many of the things that seemed hokey to me did so more because I have a lot of really specific knowledge than because they were blatantly wrong. (Ahahaha, Conamara Chaos isn’t going to have thin crackling ice ready to break through at any moment! Clearly, it must have re-frozen to a thickness sufficient to push the ice rafts up to a higher level than the surrounding terrain, which must be at least…oh, right, I’m watching a movie.) In fact, on the engineering side of things, a lot of the movie was very well-done.

Second, I was refreshed to see that the tension in the movie comes largely from the technical challenges of space exploration. About halfway through is a particularly intense scene revolving around oxygen depletion and the toxicity of hydrazine, which – while somewhat contrived in its specifics – ended up giving the plot a novel way to introduce one of those psychological horror situations that is really unique to the space environment. No aliens, pop-up scares, or spurting blood needed. In this way, the movie harkens back to a lot of Clarke-era hard sci-fi.

(Sadly, that sequence did illustrate one of “Europa Report’s” shortcomings, which was its relatively shallow focus on the characters themselves. We see allusions to the interpersonal issues, and allusions to the emotional impact of the scene I’m talking about on the rest of the characters, but it’s not really explored in detail. In some ways, the form of the movie as a series of documentary recordings may have forced that lack of depth. Fortunately, I found myself filling in some of the pieces on my own.)

Third and finally, when there are aliens on the scene causing the movie to become more suspense-thriller-like, the movie never devolves into straight-up horror. Instead, it focuses on the characters’ choices when faced with that awful situation. The movie makes very clear that the characters are motivated by a love of exploration, a desire to complete their mission, and a strong awareness of the significance their discoveries will have on the rest of humanity. Self-sacrifice becomes the theme of the film: the crew may have all met their ends on Europa (don’t worry, not a spoiler – this aspect of the plot is established in the first few minutes of the movie), but they know the service they are performing. And, in the universe of this movie, they are going to live forever. I found the overall message to be quite positive toward exploration.

I liked it.

Oh, by the way, there are totally space lobsters under the ice on Europa.

Quantum Rocketry Guide: Star System Invasion!

One of the fun things about grad school in science or engineering is getting a bunch of highly technically educated people together to go see a movie. Like “Battle: Los Angeles.” If you want to see a movie with Marines being very Marine-y and some big gasoline explosions, go see this movie. If you want to see cool aliens, awesome technology, and innovative ideas, then, uh…don’t.

You will see a lot of guys hooah-ing and a lot of wreckage.

I’m not going to do a general review of “Battle: LA,” nor a general critique of the science. (I will leave the latter up to Ryan, and I’m sure if he does such a critique it will be a fantastic read.) I will say that I liked how the aliens basically use guns and jets/rockets instead of inexplicable hover-things and energy blasters, and I liked that the reason the aliens are unstoppable at first is not because of their tech but because our soldiers don’t understand how to fight them. (Of course, the usual video-game rules of technology apply: three bazillion M-16 rounds fired into an alien aren’t enough to kill it; but do one quick alien autopsy in the field and suddenly all our guns work with full effectiveness!)

It’s the premise of the movie I want to poke at. The whole reason the aliens are attacking Earth is to claim our resources. Sound familiar? In a brief glimpse of a TV news program, Professor Greybeard explains (scientists, get your cringes ready!):

The aliens must be attacking us for our resources. Specifically, our water. 70% of Earth’s surface is covered with water, and the chemical composition of our water is unique in the solar system: it is in liquid form.

(I paraphrased from what I could recall.)

This is both factually inaccurate and a ridiculous premise for an alien invasion, for three reasons:

  1. The Earth’s water has exactly the same chemical composition as water anywhere else in the Solar System: two hydrogens stuck to an oxygen. And, in fact, water is one of the most common molecules in the Solar System – nay, universe!
  2. The Earth is not the only place in the Solar System where liquid water exists: scientists are about as sure as scientists can be that there is liquid water under the crusts of Europa and Enceladus, and possibly Ganymede and Titan as well.
  3. Water (liquid or ice) is available in many places throughout the Solar System, and as it turns out, the water on Earth’s surface is one of the hardest places to get at it, if your starting point is space.

Now, I will have to explain #3 a bit. My point relates to the depth of the Earth’s gravity well: in the words of xkcd, the reason “why it took a huge rocket to get to the Moon but only a small one to get back.” If aliens wanted to take our resources, presumably they want to do so because they need those resources for something. And since this alien civilization apparently makes a living moving from planet to planet (or star system to star system), they are going to have to move these resources or their products off of the planets they were harvested from. That means, for every kilogram of water the aliens pump out of Earth’s oceans, they need to produce spacecraft, rockets, and fuel to get the water up into space again. Think of how big the Space Shuttle is, and how much fuel we load it full of, just to get school-bus-sized Space Station modules into orbit. Contrast that with the tiny Lunar Module ascent rocket from the Apollo days.

Clearly, there must be a better way to get water off of planets. So, without further ado, the Quantum Rocketry Guide for Successful Star System Invasion and Resource Extraction for Nomadic Species: Continue reading Quantum Rocketry Guide: Star System Invasion!

I like this “cinematic” trend in video games

I’ve been a fan of Blizzard Entertainment since their WarCraft II days. I must admit that I’m unusual in that respect – because the thing I liked most was Blizzard’s storylines. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay was great – I loved sneaking those ghosts into Terran Confederacy bases, blasting my way through enemy defenses with a Protoss carrier group, or overrunning the towns of Azeroth with necromancers and skeletons. But I really appreciated the time Blizzard put into the single-player campaigns and the storylines behind them.  Even with a standard real-time strategy-game God’s-eye view of the battlefield, I would imagine what the Terran frontier towns on Mar Sara were like, imagine Kerrigan making her last stand against the Zerg onslaught, or picture Tassadar on the bridge of his command carrier, surrounded by his most trusted warriors as he led them to their heroic end.

Blizzard isn’t alone in this, of course. For all its repetitive gameplay, Assassin’s Creed tried to be as much like playing inside a movie as it could (it’s only a matter of time until someone takes a similar engine to make the Bourne Identity video game, and that will be awesome). The Star Wars universe became an interactive movie with The Force Unleashed, especially on the Wii, which let players wave their hands through the air to control the Force (at least, in a rudimentary way). But besides the gameplay elements, The Force Unleashed is a great example for having production values right up there with movies – that game had some of the best concept art I’ve ever seen, the story was clearly thought out and compelling, and the acting was very well done. Speaking of acting, video games were once the realm of C-list voiceovers, but now we now have the likes of Martin Sheen voicing characters in Mass Effect 2 – which had a tremendous cinematic trailer, enough to make me wish for an XBox.

I really like this trend. It makes video games into – gasp – a reputable medium for storytelling. I don’t think this format will ever replace books or movies, but it can certainly come up right beside them as a way to tell an interesting tale, describe compelling characters, teach us something about human interactions, and make the audience think.

Oh – what prompted this sudden post, you ask? Easy:

Not only is this an insanely high-production-value cinematic trailer, but it is clearly investing the StarCraft II story with a great deal of emotional content. Yeah, sure, it’s emotional content I’ve seen in movies/books/TV before – what is important to my point here is that the last time we saw this stuff, in the original StarCraft, it was from a standard RTS top-down perspective with voiceovers on little moving head-and-shoulders portraits of Kerrigan and Raynor. Now we see it as if it’s got a film director behind it. And now all the gamers get immersed in not only the plot but the characters’ experiences and sensations. Exciting stuff for storytellers!

Okay, Pixar…

Okay, Pixar. I love your movies. Toy Story was a wonderful opener, and since then, you’ve turned out some amazing stuff. Monster’s, Inc and Finding Nemo were tremendous. A Bug’s Life was fun. Cars wasn’t the greatest, but still wasn’t a bad film.

While I worried that you had caught Disneysequelitis with Toy Story 2, you even showed me that you could make a great sequel.

The Incredibles and Wall-E very quickly became some of my favorite movies. They’re both visually stunning with engrossing plotlines and characters that make me smile.

But this time, Pixar…this time I think you’re going to hit me too close to home!

3D movies

Before “Avatar,” I’d seen a couple of movies in 3D and had not really been impressed with what the extra five bucks got me. Up until that point there was really only a single scene in a single movie in which I thought the 3D effect actually added anything to my experience. (It’s the shot in Pixar’s “Up” in which the house floats in front of the sunset…all the colors of the sunset shine through all the colors of the balloons, each balloon is a nice round object, and the whole collection of balloons looks three-dimensional. Beautiful.) For the most part, though, I tend not even to notice that a movie is 3D unless I’m specifically looking for the three-dimensionality – if it’s a good movie, the story and characters ought to hold my attention more than that – or if the filmmakers try some cheesy, gimmicky, amusement-park-style 3D “popping” effects, a la “Beowulf.”

“Avatar” changed my mind a little, in that many more of the scenes looked so damn cool in 3D. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that while the 3D experience was pretty neat, if I go see “Avatar” any more it will be in 2D, because it really didn’t add that much to the movie. The forest creatures and sweeping panoramas will look just as good projected in 2D. The only aspects of that movie that would miss out are the holographic computer displays, and those aren’t really that important.

In fact, I think that Hollywood ought to just abandon this 3D movie kick. It’s not that I get a headache or think that cool things can’t possibly be done in 3D. It’s that even when filmmakers do the cool things, it adds so little to a movie that I’m definitely not inclined to shell out for a 50% surcharge on a ticket. Here’s why…

Continue reading 3D movies

My research appears in ‘Avatar!’

First: great movie, literally awesome visuals, stunning effects, good acting and execution, fun alien creatures, who cares if it’s a retelling of Pocahontas.

What I absolutely did not expect when I finally got to see James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ yesterday afternoon was to see my own research appear in the movie. Granted, it doesn’t take a front-row seat and it doesn’t play any major plot roles. As I was driving home with my girlfriend (a fellow aerospace engineer), we got into a discussion about how this was a reasonably hard sci-fi movie. None of the technologies seem particularly farfetched: ducted-fan helicopters exist on Earth at a low technology readiness level (TRL), as do exoskeleton power suits. 3D glassy computer displays aren’t a stretch, nor are hovering VTOL aircraft on a low-gravity world. The flight to Alpha Centauri takes 6 years, meaning some reasonable sort of sublight propulsion. The ship Sully arrives on even has rotating segments, big radiators, and solar collectors. The avatars themselves don’t even seem too crazy, since we keep hearing about advanced prostheses that can be controlled by a user’s thoughts. (I’ll reserve judgment on mixing alien and human DNA until we have real alien DNA on hand.) Nor does a planetwide neural interface – though I have to wonder what selective pressures would cause such a thing to evolve – given that we have bacterial, fungal, and other life forms on Earth that can split and recombine, blurring the distinction between organisms.

But surely, I thought, those floating mountains are ridiculous. Visually stunning, yes, and great for those 3D flying scenes. But physically ludicrous.

Pandora's Hallelujah mountains

We are led to believe, in the movie, that these mountains float against the force of (albeit reduced) gravity because there is an exceptionally strong magnetic field generated on Pandora. Cameron even gives us direct evidence of that field: you know how iron filings align themselves with a magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet?

Iron filings aligning themselves with magnetic field lines

Well, the magnetic field on Pandora is so strong that geologic formations align themselves with the magnetic field. The field is so outrageously strong that whatever iron content is in Pandoran minerals – most likely not 100%, even if those rocks are pure hematite or magnetite or something like that – is sufficient to make rocks suspend themselves against gravity in the shape of the magnetic field lines:

A field that bends rock to its will!

I know for experience that this might not necessarily be impossible, for a sufficiently strong magnetic field. After all, in my lab is a whopping-big NdFeB rare-Earth magnet about the size of a margarine tub, and even when it’s contained within its sarcophagal wooden box, I can get six-inch steel bolts to suspend themselves, against gravity, at a 45° angle in its field. So, for a sufficiently strong magnetic field, this flux-line rock formation is not at all out of the question, believe it or not!

How about the mountains themselves? Couldn’t the magnetic field strong enough to make these “flux arches” also levitate mountain-sized chunks of rock?

Well, I thought, surely not if it is solely the repulsion of like magnetic poles that is responsible. After all, Earnshaw’s theorem says that the familiar field sources that drop off with distance, like gravity, electrostatic attraction, and magnetostatic attraction, cannot be arranged in a passively stable configuration. If you don’t believe me, then I set for you a challenge: get some ordinary bar magnets, and lay them out on a table. Try to arrange them in such a way that they are within a few centimeters of each other, but the attraction of opposite poles and repulsion of similar poles cancel out so that the entire arrangement sits on the table without moving. (For safety’s sake, do not do this with the rare-earth magnets I mentioned above, because when you fail at the challenge, the magnets will jump towards each other with substantial force. Rare-earth magnets are brittle and will shatter if that happens, sending neodymium shrapnel flying around – if they didn’t pinch your fingers when they impacted.) You will find that no matter how hard you try, no matter how many friends you get to hold the magnets in position and simultaneously release them, no matter how you angle them and tweak them, you won’t ever be able to prevent at least one of the magnets from attracting or repelling some other magnet. The whole arrangement will either fly apart or collapse together. You might think that in 3D you’d be able to come up with some super-clever configuration that is stable, but, in fact, if you move beyond the two dimensions (and three degrees of freedom) of the table top the situation gets far worse, because all the bar magnets try to align themselves with one another in 3D. So, a combination of purely magnetic and gravitational forces cannot result in a stable configuration of those mountains.

“But, ha!” you say. “You must be wrong! You said that a combination of gravitational field sources can’t be in a stable arrangement, and clearly, the planets of our solar system have been stably orbiting each other for four billion years! And I’ve even seen those Levitron tops – magnetic tops that stably levitate against gravity, just like those mountains!

The Levitron: just two magnets, one inside a spinning top

The key difference between a Levitron or an orbit and the bar magnets on a table top are that they are dynamically stable. They require motion to preserve stability. Stop the planets from orbiting, and they will fall into each other and the Sun. Stop the Levitron from spinning, and it flops over – aligning itself with the magnet in the base – and drops to the ground. So, for Pandora’s mountains to levitate like that, they must be spinning or moving in some way. It might be the case that, if they were at Pandora’s equator, the repulsive magnetic force actually “cancels out” the low gravity of the moon enough that the mountains are actually in circular orbits about Pandora’s equator. But that situation is dynamically tricky, requiring exquisite balances of forces – and I would estimate from the different sizes of floating mountains that they have different magnetic mineral contents, so the balance between gravity and magnetism would be different for each mountain and each would have a different orbit. Doesn’t work.

So what’s the answer? Well, it’s all in those little gray crystals the imperialist human colonists of RDA are after. Unobtainium.

An unobtainium crystal, unobtrusively levitating. Wait, what?
An unobtainium crystal, unobtrusively levitating. Wait, what?

Above is a picture of an unobtainium crystal from the movie. It’s levitating above some crazy sci-fi antigravity contraption, that holds it stably up in the air where people can poke at it, spin it, pluck it out of midair and play with it before putting it back in exactly the same spot again. Now, wait a minute – where have I seen this behavior before? Oh, right. My research lab.

A rare-earth magnet levitating over a high-temperature superconductor

That is a picture I took of a NdFeB magnet, stably levitating over the high-temperature superconductor yttrium barium copper oxide, or YBCO. (For scale, the magnet is 3/4″ across.) You can do everything with that magnet that they do with the sample of unobtainium in ‘Avatar.’ Leave it alone, and it happily floats in midair. Poke it, and it rocks a little before going back to its equilibrium position. Give it a twirl, and it’ll spin over the YBCO – and if the magnet isn’t cylindrically symmetric, it’ll eventually stop spinning and settle down again. Pull it away from the YBCO, and you can put it back later and watch it float in exactly the same midair spot as when it started. You can even pin different sizes and shapes of magnets – all stable against gravity. This whole setup would work perfectly if the magnet was on the table and the YBCO was doing all the floating, too. It’s all because the magnet induces currents in the YBCO that are not opposed by any resistance – “supercurrents” – which generate their own magnetic fields that then interact with the magnet.

“Wait,” you ask, “that magnet is just a magnet. The supercurrents make magnetic fields. I thought you said that magnetic field sources couldn’t be arranged in a stable configuration! It’s Earnshaw’s Theorem again.”

That would be an astute question. The answer is that, in this case, the superconductor doesn’t have a fixed magnetic field. As the magnet moves around – let’s say it starts to fall from its equilibrium position, because gravity is pulling on it – then its motion causes the supercurrents in the YBCO to move around. The new distribution of supercurrents gets superimposed on top of the previous distribution of supercurrents, with the net result that the magnetic field from the YBCO tends to push back on the magnet, keeping it in its original position. It’s as if the field lines of the magnet get stuck, or trapped, in the volume of the superconductor. The effect is called “magnetic flux pinning” for that very reason, and it happens with Type II, or “high-temperature” superconductors. (If you know about Meissner repulsion, flux pinning is related but not the same.) So, that blue-glowing antigravity generator in the RDA command center, with the levitating sample of unobtainium, is very likely just a magnet. And the Hallelujah Mountains are just a scaled-up version of the magnet and YBCO in my lab.

But, you probably noticed from that photo, the YBCO has to be below liquid nitrogen temperature in order to superconduct and exhibit flux pinning. Clearly, Pandora is not at cryogenic temperatures, which pretty much pegs “unobtainium” as a room-temperature superconductor – a type of material that is highly sought-after in research labs today, and would indeed be extremely valuable. That means that the Hallelujah Mountains on Pandora likely consist of large deposits of unobtainium, which are flux-pinned to the stupendously powerful magnetic field lines coming from that field sources on the planet. This explains the value of unobtainium, how the mountains levitate the way they do, and why the floating mountains are so close to the flux arch structures.

There’s another interesting link between ‘Avatar’ and flux pinning. Remember how I said that the effect of flux pinning is as if a magnet’s field lines get stuck within the superconductor? Well, if you had a good electricity and magnetism course, that notion might sit uncomfortably with you, because you were probably taught that “field lines” or “flux lines” are not physically real, but are a good visualization tool for magnetic fields, which exist everywhere around a magnet and not just in neat little looping lines. Well, you’d be right, but things tend to get kind of weird inside superconductors. Magnetic fields are quantized just like everything else, and it is these magnetic flux quanta that get “stuck” inside the YBCO. In fact, they actually get trapped on impurities within the YBCO’s crystal structure. You might think that these quanta of magnetic flux would be called “fluxons,” but because they correspond pretty well to magnetic field lines, papers on superconductivity and flux pinning tend to throw around several names for them – like “flux lines,” “field lines,” and “flux vortices.” That last name likely comes from the fact that, in the superconductor, each of the magnetic field lines induces a little loop of electric current that races in a circle around the flux line, like a little vortex. The sum total of all these little currents adds up to the distribution of supercurrents that gives us flux pinning.

In ‘Avatar,’ every time they fly near the flux-arch structure, they talk about a “flux vortex.” It sounds like your classic sci-fi trope of combining sciency-sounding words. (“Invert the phase capacitors!”) But, hmm…maybe, just maybe, that’s not mere technobulshytt after all!

I’m pretty convinced that all this isn’t accidental. The filmmakers had every intention of unobtainium being a room-temperature supercondcutor and the floating mountains being flux-pinned to the field source within the planet. Because I know that this is not the first article on the web about it! But the fact that it’s my own research in this movie: now that is cool! (For the uninitiated, I’m working on using flux pinning to assemble and reconfigure modular spacecraft. More info on my web site and my research group web site. You can also check out Youtube videos of me demonstrating flux pinning and our microgravity experiments with flux-pinned spacecraft mockups from last summer.)

Of course, ‘Avatar’ doesn’t get it all right. And they shouldn’t be expected to. I know from my research that flux pinning is a very short-range effect; getting those mountains to levitate would require a (probably literally) mind-bogglingly powerful magnetic field. Not something I’d expect to see from a planetary dynamo. Nor would a dipolar magnetic field within Pandora explain the flux arches: those are clearly centered on a magnetic field source at the surface of the world. And if the field source is powerful enough to get the rocks to bend around and follow field lines – all the aircraft, armor suits, guns, mobile lab trailers, and equipment carried by the human scientists and soldiers probably has more than enough ferromagnetic metal content to be ripped towards the field source. And that doesn’t even account for this happening:

Oh, well. But, speaking as someone who hopes that our future space program will involve spacecraft build out of components that “levitate” near each other without touching, but still acting as if they are mechanically connected, I would sure love to see some room-temperature superconductors and floating mountains!