The film ‘Passengers’ highlights of the crazy distances and times of space flight

The hibernation bay in the film “the Passenger.”

(© 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. )

The new film “Passengers” finds a mechanic named Jim Preston, played by Chris Pratt, left all alone on a slim, spinning starship, thanks to a faulty sleep pod. The automated ship is spacious, cruise-ship like, and there is even space-age Roomba-like bots to keep it tidy.

The ship is on a 120 year journey to a new planet, and Jim, and later Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) has plenty of time to kill— more than 80 years— not to mention a dangerous buggy starship to try to fix it.

“Passengers” is firmly in the realm of science fiction, as the characters negotiate the very long space schlep to the new planet, called Homestead 2. But what is not science fiction is that scientists already know of the existence of thousands of exoplanets, are planets outside of our solar system. Earthlings, however, do not plan to go to them in the near future.


“So far, there is more than 3,000 exoplanets that have been discovered, mainly coming from the space,” Tiffany Kataria, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which focuses on exoplanets and the weather, their told “The Kepler space telescope really revolutionized the number of exoplanets that we know that they exist.” (Kepler is credited with more than 2,300 confirmed exoplanets, with the help of a system to detect them, called the transit method.)

But of all those only a “handful” are potentially habitable, ” she said.

Humanity is not going to visit anytime soon, though. Take, for example, the nearest known exoplanet, Proxima Centauri B, about four light years from here— a light year is the distance that light can travel in 365 days.


So we could send a probe there? Kataria brought the Juno spacecraft, currently in orbit around Jupiter. That probe has cruised at speeds in the neighborhood of 150,000 miles per hour.

Even if a probe could travel at a speed to Proxima Centauri B, it would be an amazing 18,000 years to get there, according to Kataria.

“So the technology is not really there at this moment,” Kataria said.

In the film, the fictional ship is traveling at 50 percent of the speed of light— if we could send a probe to Proxima Centauri B at that speed, it would just be 3000 days, or just over 8 years to get there. But there is no tech that can do that.

So, Kataria said, there is not a direct connection between the film and the current NASA research. But, she added, it is in the style of “the imagination and the possibility for things that could be. Of course, the driving goal of the NASA, in particular in the study of exoplanets is to find terrestrial planets that are potentially like our own, that we should be able to live on a day. This [movie] further, pulls on those heartstrings.”

Follow Rob Koster on Twitter: @robverger

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