Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

The Europa Report: A Report


I have to say, being asked to review a film for Scientific American has to be one of the most randomly awesome things that’s happened to this scientist, especially since the film is about Europa. As a UCLA PhD, most of my friends were graphics and production guys, so I’ve got to try to put in my former Los Angelino-$0.02.

As someone totally, completely UTTERLY obsessed with Europa, I’ve thought through the moment of first contact myself thousands of times. What could it be like to see under that ice??? How would I feel? So, imagine my absolute joy to learn that there was a full-length feature film coming out that centered on exactly this scenario…what might happen if we sent people to Europa? Mind you, I’ve always imagined a robots-first scenario, but I would volunteer tomorrow for a one-way trip to see Europa in all its icy glory orbiting Jupiter with my own eyes. So premise? Check.

Then I found out: it’s a horror movie. SWEET!! I’ve often kidded, in fact, and only half-jokingly, that with my luck, we’ll send a sub down, and in the first live pictures, a huge sea spider will crawl across the view and I’ll have a heart attack right there. I’m an arachnophobe but I would still love to see that happen…so of course that’s what I imagined would crawl out of the ice in the Europa Report .

If I think about sci-fi movies, Mars has gotten it’s fair share of the press—Mission to Mars, Total Recall, Mars Attacks! You get my drift. Little Europa has starring in indie films and making quick appearances waiting for the big break, for a cameo as one of the sister moons to Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar. In 2010: A Space Odyssey, we got to hear these ever-ominous words (to which NASA seems to be listening), “all these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landing there.”

But this didn’t stop the team who wrote and filmed The Europa Report. The movie is set in the not-so-distant future, with exciting new science results compelling humanity to make Europa its first stop in space.

We hear from the director of a private corporation, with international membership, which has decided that Europa is too compelling to ignore, and have chosen it as the first target for human exploration (By now I’m cheering, since I agree!!!!) The movie sets up the way we set up for any space mission…press conferences, talking about the science, introducing the intrepid crew who’ve been training for years for this moment, commentary from mission directors, images of crew capsules being towed down city streets.

But we also get the picture…something has gone terribly wrong. We’re to be left for most of the film wondering just what has happened to Europa One.

In fact, the whole beginning of the film was incredibly exciting. The reasons that the Europa One team cites for going to Europa are a mixture of ripped from the headlines science about lakes on Europa, (OMG that’s our paper, our lakes on the silver screen! Bucket list, check!) and a fictional heat signature emanating from Conamara Chaos that the whole world agrees are too compelling to ignore.

The film feels more like a documentary, and for the most part, pretty believable. You could imagine what it would be like to be one of these crew members. The eerie and beautiful scene of the spacecraft passing the moon, becoming the farthest out that humanity has ever gone, and then realizing that there are years of travel ahead, just puts into perspective how far we have left to go as a species, and that moment isn’t lost on the film.

I’m not going to ruin the movie for you by describing in detail all of what comes next—a flight to Europa, loss of data relay to the ground, the launch of a crew vehicle down to the surface, Blair Witch-style photography mixed with crew interviews and commentary from mission control after the fact are all spliced together in a kind of back-and-forth in time that builds suspense for the landed mission. And, spoiler alert, a cameo by a creepy, apparently evil and radioactive version of one of my favorite animals.

So onto the science. The producers said they cared about the science, and they proved it. I’ve made a list of the things they’ve gotten right and the few they’ve gotten wrong.

The Good:

The launch of Europa One is particularly well done—it’s a mix of footage from the cape and Apollo-reminiscent external camera views as the rocket launches, and then as the boosters fall away. There’s nothing more enthralling than standing at Cape Canaveral, waiting for the moment your mission is going to leave this world and head for another—I’m not sure I can describe it well enough, but the film does a great job of capturing the experience.

The flyovers use actual images from NASA spacecraft. I choked up at the first flyover of Europa (seriously, heart in throat). They took the Galileo images that I know so well and brought them to life. I’ve had that dream so many times…flying past beautiful Jupiter, with its flowing atmosphere like a real life Monet, and glimpsing the bright glittering surface of Europa speckled with brown indications of a hidden dynamic world. I could feel the awe bubbling up.

They correctly represent the scientists—unlike what you might guess from the Big Bang Theory or from Michael Bay movies, scientists aren’t all pocket protector nerds and certainly aren’t sex-starved supermodel-hot-yet-misunderstood blondes (I can barely afford my student loan payments, you won’t be seeing me in a Gucci suit at the office anytime soon). We’re mostly excited, slightly obsessive people with average wardrobes (ok perhaps slightly worse than average) who just want to tell you how awesome it is that we get to work on something we’d probably do for free. We would certainly walk the extra hundred meters to get that once in a lifetime sample of figure out what the glowing light is.

They captured the reality of spaceflight in our current time: with funding for science and space at its lowest point since the 80’s and with increasing risk aversion, there are things public spaceflight just may not accomplish. Hopefully, the rise of private space flight will lower launch costs and let the public sector do what it does best—frontier, fundamental research. But unless priorities change soon, there are things we just can’t—and really won’t—with public space programs.

The movie shows exactly what we all know—technology is incredible and moving fast, but there are things we just can’t do with robots, tasks for which a human is still required.

The “Meh”

I’m guessing the rockets they launched from are not large enough, despite being well done. Visually, the launch looks like an Atlas V with more boosters, though perhaps they are going for the new SLS-style launch. But I was still underwhelmed.

Ok, we have to talk about gravity. Every movie has its way of dealing with gravity. In this one, we’ve got actors at least trying to raise their arms like they are in zero G. There’s the spinning spacecraft to “simulate” gravity. And there are some shots where the actors go flying about through the cabin, so ok, I’ll give it to them.

Ice thickness is a debate (I’d argue mostly solved) in the science community. The preponderance of evidence says the ice shell is really think, at least 10 km and probably closer to 20 km (But don’t worry, there is still water up close to the surface and the ice shell thickness probably doesn’t matter the way we once thought for the possibility of life there). And while we think there are places where the ice shell disrupts, it’s probably NEVER thin enough that a spacecraft would crack the ice, much less a person. But, this is a horror movie, so I guess we can let them have that.

Ice 11: there’s a point where the actor playing the landing module pilot describes, “we’ve landed on Ice 11.” Ice 11 is pretty cool, literally, forming at a temperature below about 80 K, which I might add is much, much colder than Europa’s surface. It’s been reported in some very ancient ice in Antarctica, at temperatures higher than that, so maybe it’s possible on Europa as well. And while it can be formed in high radiation, that assumes the temperature hasn’t cycled past the stability point for ice 11. If you go to Europa to land on a warm spot, I’d wager it’s not too likely that the dynamic, recycling surface, especially where it’s warm (and apparently thin), is made of Ice 11. At least they didn’t say Ice 6, then we’d have to throw down.

As much as I hate to say it, launching people to Europa as a first deep space target is pretty insane. The amazing complexity of life support, planning, logistics, etc, would just not be well suited to going there first, not to mention the travel times and complexity of the orbital tour into Europa orbit (which would have been really cool to see in the film!! Hi there, Ganymede!).

The Ugly

Cliché crazy Russian scientist…I’m getting sick of this one.

But there’s only one part of the movie I absolutely hated: light coming down through the ice (because of the horrifically cool radiationopus, I’ll give them the light going up through the ice, who am I to know what monsterpusses might be capable of?). As I can tell you first hand, precious little light makes it through even the eight meters of sea ice, common off the coast of Antarctica. And there is just no way Europa’s ice is that thin, anywhere. Might there be cracks? Sure. But not translucent ice. So at 5 AU, with less intense solar flux than here at Earth, there’s certainly not going to be light transmitted through the ice. Just put some headlights on your subs, like we do, and it will STILL look as cool. And by the way, if you go all the way to Europa, melt or drill into the ice with a probe, and let it swim around, wouldn’t it occur to you to have a way of measuring when you broke through? I have to say, “I guess the ice must be thinner than we thought” just doesn’t cut it for this scientist.

But lets not leave it on a bad note. The movie is fun. It’s beautiful. The acting is alright actually, in fact at times, it’s rather personal (well, except the landing module pilot who has the emotion of a sandwich, and that awkward moment when one of the crew is lost and everyone just stands around, as if waiting to hear “cut”). What I think the film does well is transmit the sense of what could be. From the crew who sacrifice themselves to send back proof of life, to the awe that the folks on the ground feel at the grandeur of the moment, to the documentary-style crew interviews, the movie shows why we study space, and why we dream of going there. As explained by James Corrigan (played by Sharlto Copley of District 9 fame), we’re trying to understand ourselves, our place in the universe, and if we are alone. Space science inspires the kind of awe that might lift humanity up, asking us to look outside our selves to a bigger and better sense of who we are and our connection to this amazing universe where we find ourselves. Overall, the film is an enjoyable voyage not short on awe for those who care to jump on board.

Images: Europa: NASA/JPL/DLR; movie still, courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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