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Artistic License – Astronomy
aka: Artistic Licence Astronomy
Not quite how our solar system is arranged.
Over the past week, the planets of our solar system have moved outside their orbital paths and are coming into alignment. I mean, do you know how unusual that is? Methos:
But that could just be orbital wobble.
Ah, fictional astronomy. The really great thing about writing is you get to make the entire Cosmos do what you want it to, even things it can't really do. Here are some shortcuts writers take related to astronomy:
These overlap Artistic License – Physics
and Space Does Not Work That Way
. Not to be confused with Astrology
, no matter how open to interpretation the stars may be.
Can't figure out where to put your astronomy related example? Leave it here. When we get enough like it, a new trope will begin to form. Kind of like a solar system, if you think about it.
Mangled Celestial Motion - Relative Planetary and stellar placement
Mangled Celestial Motion - Made-To-Order Eclipses
- There is an energy snack commercial where a basketball player (Lamar Odom) shows off his ability to dunk to the Moon. On his way, he tells Saturn to get out of his way. If we're suspending our disbelief enough to buy that a guy jump to the Moon, Saturn might as well be between the Earth and the Moon. The next guy says he's going to dunk on Pluto. Okay. For all we know, that might be a shorter trip than one to the Moon, in this ficton's astronomy.
- In Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, all the planets including Pluto (which at the time, was a planet) are aligned. Okay. Pluto's orbit is highly erratic, tilted at an angle of 17 degrees to the ecliptic and highly eccentric (being the wrong kind of ellipse). It will probably never align closely with all the other planets in the lifespan of the solar system, but you can't have a really good planetary collection without having the whole set.
- Doctor Who: The 1996 TV movie places Gallifrey, the Doctor's home planet, some 250 million light years away from Earth, on "the other side" of the Milky Way. That's about 249.9 million light years past the other edge of it. The Milky Way is estimated to be only between 80 and 100 thousand light years across.
- Towards the end of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in mid or late June, Harry is taking his astronomy O.W.L. and charting Orion. Orion is not visible in the night sky in mid or late June at any latitude. The same scene also has him looking around for Venus (which is never more than 47 degrees away from the sun) around midnight. Needless to say, he didn't do particularly well on that O.W.L.. Just as well. Muggles have to be better at something.
- In addition, it never gets dark enough for stargazing in northern Scotland in July.
- When the aliens attempt to reach Earth in Calvin and Hobbes: The Series, the narrative inexplicably swaps Jupiter and Saturn's positions in the solar system.
- In Firefly, the 'Verse is set in a quintiple star system that was reached and settled by 2517 via Generation Ship. In reality, there isn't actually a system of that kind that can be reached in that timeframe, so they had to make one up. note
Mangled Celestial Motion - Constellations Are Constant
- Apocalypto features a solar eclipse. The very next night, there's a full moon, which is odd considering that a solar eclipse can only happen at a new moon. (Lunar eclipses, on the other hand, can only happen at the full moon.) The Moon is obviously like a great big lightbulb a writer can turn up or down, depending on the level of light needed at night. Since it's heavily implied that the Mayan priests secretly know how to predict eclipses, this leads to the amusing Fridge Logic that the characters know better astronomy than the writers.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Season 3 finale features a solar eclipse that goes from zero to total in about five seconds, then stays that way for the duration of the entire climactic battle. Apparently the mayor's magic is powerful enough to first speed up the earth's rotation, then stop it dead in its tracks for a while.
- Ladyhawke: A full moon is followed a few days later by a solar eclipse, followed a few days later by a quarter moon. Though the novelization, by SF writer Joan Vinge, corrects this.
- Something alike happens in the Spanish TV series Aguila Roja. A few days before a full moon there's a solar eclipse.
- Heroes has issues with eclipses. The pilot has a reasonably brief eclipse, but it's visible in both New York City and Tokyo at the same time. The eclipse that robs everyone of their powers in Season 3 is even worse; not only is it visible across the globe, it lasts for hours. Why? Because is it says so, right here in the script, that's why.
- Justified in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn; the Total Eclipse of the Plot is artificially caused by a prehistoric Magitek doomsday device.
Mangled Celestial Motion - Spacey Schedule Errors
- Stargate: The way that constellations are used as a Cartesian coordinate system begins with the idea that a constellation is a fixed point in space. That probably makes it easier to build things you can just walk through to cross interstellar distances.
- Subverted in Stargate SG-1. The SGC cannot dial any address other than Abydos until Daniel Jackson discovers information that shows how to shift gate addresses to compensate for passing time.
- Space Mutiny: Constellations are repeatedly referred to as meaningful divisions of space.
- Doctor Who
- The Doctor specifically mentions that his homeworld of Gallifrey was located in the Kasterborous constellation. How can one's own homeworld be in a constellation, when constellations are arbitrary shapes in the night sky as visible from your homeworld? We can't say that Earth is in a certain constellation because to us constellations are only visible from here. Additionally, stars that appear to be close together in a constellation may actually be hundreds of light-years apart; they might only look close together because of the scale involved.
- The Trial of a Time Lord repeatedly refers to Earth's entire constellation being moved by the Time Lords, ravaging Earth in the process and turning it into Ravelox. There have been a few attempts to address this in and out of fiction, but it usually comes down to viewers and writers just liking the sound of it. Maybe the Doctor does too.
- This error also crops up in The Five Star Stories, with many characters referring to the eponymous stars as a constellation despite living on planets orbiting them. They may just be talking poetically, though.
- Star Control II: All the stars in a constellation are close to each other, forming contiguous regions on the hyperspace map. The manual explains that these constellations are not the same constellations visible from any given planet, but were created after hyperspace was mapped from the patterns on the map.
- Shot down in Men In Black, where the cryptic clue "The galaxy is on Orion's belt," is quickly dismissed as blathering nonsense.
- In Prometheus, the titular ship's destination is derived from an image of five stars which shows up in ancient sites around the world. The archaeologist hero says that a certain region of a very distant galaxy is the only possible match for this stellar configuration.
Mangled Celestial Motion - Planets Never Move
- In She-Wolf of London, Randi tells Ian not to worry about her transforming into her wolf form because "there won't be another full moon for months".
- In Time Scout, reading stars like a clock is portrayed as much more difficult and complex than it actually is.
Mangled Astrophysics - Timescales of Stellar Evolution
- A common problem that sneaks in quietly in a lot of science fiction works. In reality, the Earth is orbiting the sun at about 30 km per second, the sun is speeding around the core of the galaxy at about 220 km per second, and the galaxy is speeding through the universe at about 550 km per second.
- Some people think that this means that a work where a time machine departs Earth in the present day and ends up on Earth in the time of the dinosaurs (rather than in deep space in the time of the dinosaurs) is in error. However, relativity says that the laws of physics are the same in every frame of reference, which means that there's no universal definition of "not moving", and thus no way for a time machine to take you back in time without moving in space in some reference frames. This means that a time machine that took you back "without moving" could only really take you back along the trajectory it was on at the moment, which for a time machine on Earth would mean it would take you back in time along Earth's trajectory, so if you departed from Earth, you'd arrive on Earth.
- A lot of sci-fi works will refer to the distance between two planets as if it was a constant as well, despite the way they are orbiting at different speeds.
- Marvin the Martian wants to blow up the earth because it obstructs his view of Venus. Just wait a moment... In reality, astronomers would flock to such an event. There is plenty one can learn about both objects when a planet eclipses a star (or another planet).
- A planet eclipsing another is a rare, and quite brief, event that would likely be over in the amount of time Marvin spends plotting about it.
Mangled Astrophysics - Supernovae: Causes and Effects
- In the novellization of Revenge of the Sith, Anakin recalls a visit to a black dwarf star system: a frigid dwarf of hypercompacted trace metals, hovering a quantum fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Even now there are no such objects yet, since they require hundreds of billions of years to cool, and the Universe isn't old enough; and Anakin lived "a long time ago", that's in a universe even younger than ours.
Mangled Astrophysics - Nova
- In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, one of the sequels to A Wrinkle in Time, there's given yet another reason not to throw a nuclear war on Earth:
Gaudior: You know some of the possibilities if your planet is blown up.
Charles Wallace: It just might throw off the balance of things, so that the sun would burst into a supernova.
Though, to be sure, it's a trope in the series that "all things are connected", and indeed, one character in A Wrinkle in Time
is herself a former star who blew herself up to fight the cosmic enemy.
- In the 2009 Star Trek reboot/alternate continuity film, the Romulan system is destroyed by the shockwave from a supernova...trouble is, the star shown exploding is an average-looking yellow Main Sequence star (like our own), which are neither hot enough nor massive enough to generate a supernova. Supernovae form almost exclusively from extremely massive blue-white stars.
- The final result of Adam Warren's Dirty Pair arc "Fatal But Not Serious" (during which a cloned Yuri raises hell on a planet) is the launch of a supernova-causing weapon to the nearest sun, which makes it explode with such power that other supernovae will occur from the shockwave. This is not possible-supernovae don't produce a "shockwave" powerful enough to create "sympathetic explosions" of other suns (especially because they are normally too far away from each other for this to happen, if it could happen in Real Life), and while it's never said about what the weapon can cause other than that it can cause supernovae, it's easy to assume that such a mess would be beyond the designer's original desire (and it was unmodified, mind). Just another thing that could be chalked to their inhumanly bad luck, apparently.
- A similar chain reaction occurs towards the end of the Andromeda arc of Perry Rhodan in the center region of that galaxy after a star is destroyed with a largely untested prototype weapon there. This can potentially be handwaved — hyperspace to the rescue — in that the star in question was one of six blue giants making up one of the "main" matter transmitter stations in a network capable of moving entire fleets on an intergalactic scale, and any side effects (including pretty effectively wrecking the network in question for good) thus probably weren't caused purely by its physical detonation.
In more than one work of fiction, a star like the sun is said to end its life by "going nova." The implication is that a nova is merely a supernova on a smaller scale. Even Larry Niven
brushed up dangerously close to this mistake in his short story "Inconstant Moon."
In reality, a nova is an outburst caused by a white dwarf sucking material off of a companion star; when enough material is accreted on the white dwarf's surface, it gets hot enough and dense enough to undergo nuclear fusion. This produces an outburst that reaches peak brightness in a few hours, then cools back down again over a few days or weeks. Some white dwarfs are known to be "recurrent novae", undergoing a nova outburst at more-or-less regular intervals of a few years or decades. (If the white dwarf accretes so
much material that its mass exceeds 1.44 solar masses, it will explode spectacularly in an event called a Type Ia Supernova; this event turns it into a neutron star.)
When a sunlike star ends its main sequence lifetime, it doesn't "go nova", it swells into a red giant
over the course of a few million years.
Even fictionally "blowing up the sun" should never, ever result in a "nova." Supernova, maybe, but not nova.
- In Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Lara Croft observed the alignment of Pluto and Neptune through a telescope in a room full of what looked like 20 floodlights. If these two had tried to be too dim to see in that situation, Lara would have just kicked their butts. They must have been really trying to be bright little planetary bodies that night out of sheer terror.
- The first Ad Bumper (indeed very first segment) of this collection of 1984 commercials and ad bumpers shows a ground-based observatory frantically turning to get a view of a UFO. Not only is the UFO in question too close to resolve clearly by the telescope, but observatories can't turn that fast.
- In the season 6 finale to The Big Bang Theory, "The Bon Voyage Reaction", Raj shows his girlfriend the International Space Station, using a telescope to do so. The problem with this is the ISS orbits the earth every 90 minutes, so it is constantly moving. A telescope's field of vision is small so you would have to keep moving the telescope to see the ISS or it would whiz by very quickly. The telescope was probably unnecessary anyway because the ISS is usually visible to the naked eye as it moves across the sky.
Fake-Looking Celestial Bodies
- In the manga version of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, the Big Bad summons his most powerful monster—The Supremacy Sun, strongest monster in the "Planet Series". Somewhat justified in that said Big Bad grew up in Ancient Egypt—Yu-Gi-Oh!'s Ancient Egypt... and made the Planet Series, himself. This may be a translation issue. Japanese things actually call everything stars—"wakusei" (惑星) literally translates to something like "confusing star" ("planet", by the way, comes from a word meaning "wanderer", probably for similar reasons).
- In The World of Darkness supplement Infinite Macabre, the term "galaxy" is explicitly stated to mean "systems of stars orbiting one another" or "systems of planets orbiting one or more stars." Also, they're separated by hundreds of thousands of parsecs at least, millions of parsecs at most. By way of reference, the nearest "galaxy," using the above definition, to our "galaxy, again using the above definition, is the Centauri system, roughly 1.5 parsecs away. Talk about scale problems...
- In the 1959 film of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Professor Lindenbrook remarks that more is known about the stars and galaxies than about the depths of our own planet. The film is set in the mid-1800s, when the term "galaxy" only applied to our own Milky Way; the distant celestial objects now known to be other galaxies were then called "spiral nebulae".
- Star Wars Expanded Universe:
- The planet Bespin is stated by canon to be a gas giant, but is milky-white and stripeless, and generally looks like Venus. A Venus-like planet is an even better place to put a Cloud City, but it's not a gas giant, even if canon states it to be such. However, not all gas giants look alike. A gas giant in the habitable zone would have white water clouds. An orange color could be caused by the presence of methane in the atmosphere (airborne methanogenic bacteria?). The planet could lack stripes if it had a slow rotation.
- This does NOT excuse the dull red color of the gas giant Yavin. It looks like a brown dwarf, not a gas giant. Brown dwarfs are basically gas giants that are so big, they almost began nuclear fusion. Given that many star systems are binary, having one with a main sequence star and a brown dwarf is not inconceivable. Also, brown dwarves actually are magenta colored, while a sufficently hot gas giant (as in, close to it's parent star) might slightly glow red. Whether it could harbor a habitable moon is up to debate, but it could also be just a matter of the planet's chemistry.
Comet Impacts Don't Work That Way
- The Crab Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula (because of their interesting appearance) were once depicted as being the home address of various aliens. If not, then they were in the neighborhood. These are not very hospitable areas to have a planet. The former is what remains of a star that went supernova in 1054 and the latter is actually an area where new stars are born. Also, as with constellations, these nebulae will not retain their appearance to a person travelling in space as opposed to on Earth. So an alien wouldn't think of himself as being from, say, the "Horsehead Nebula."note
- There is a political cartoon where a father tells his son that every star has a system of planets. Not every star system, every star. Where to even begin? Not every star has planets (very young blue stars don't, for example, since they don't have time to form), but it's a matter of ongoing scientific debate on exactly how common are planets.
- In more than one work of science fiction — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan comes to mind — a nebula is treated like an opaque cloud where a space ship can easily hide from sight. In reality, nebulas are more rarefied than the best laboratory vacuum. The only reason a nebula is visible as a cloudlike structure is because it's light-years across, and astronomers have to peer through a ginormous expanse of this extremely tenuous material.
Completely inaccurate terminology
- Tank Girl. The opening narration says that a comet hit the Earth and somehow got rid of most of the liquid water on Earth (as shown by the dry sea beds), presumably by evaporating it. It also resulted in no rain falling for 11 years. Unless the comet was made of some crazy compounds designed to utterly destroy water molecules, the result of all that water evaporating should have been 1) the entire planet being flash-broiled, and 2) the mother of all greenhouse effects and downpours when all of that water vapor condensed and returned to the ground. (Unless the comet hit the Earth so hard that it sent all the water out into deep space; but any comet impact of that magnitude would also shatter the Earth's crust and turn it into a lava world.) The dialog of the Water And Power personnel implies that vast amounts of water are hidden under the desert, but it's even less likely that the comet impact could have caused that.
Destroying Killer Space Objects in Earth Orbit Is Perfectly Safe
- In Highlander: The Source, the galaxy suffers a major case of When the Planets Align. One character offhandedly dismisses the phenomenon, suggesting "that could just be orbital wobble." To be fair, the film immediately says "No it isn't 'orbital wobble', this is clearly magic related to the Immortals."
- Like the movie that it was licensed from, Stern Electronics' Meteor Pinball is named after a five-mile wide asteroid that's headed for the Earth.
- The word astronomy is itself often confused with astrology. Many real-life astronomers get asked about star signs.
Light pollution does not exist
- In Bill Nye the Science Guy: Stop The Rock, the Meteoroid And Asteroid eXploder, MAAX, is designed to deflect or otherwise destroy asteroids or meteoroids which are large enough to pose a threat to the survival of life on Earth as people know it. The latter part would actually do more damage in real life since destroying asteroids and meteoroids large enough to destroy or decimate Earth would only create even more asteroids or meteoroids to impact the Earth - albeit smaller ones.
Orbital mechanics do not work that way
- The Saving Hope episode "Vamanos" has a scene with Charlie and a patient watching a meteor shower from the hospital roof. The meteors are easy to see despite the fact that these people are in downtown Toronto surrounded by brightly-lit buildings. It would be either difficult or impossible to get this kind of view in a light-polluted area. Usually the only celestial objects visible would be particularly large and bright ones such as Jupiter.
Stars with pointed spikes
- In Gravity, the Flechette Storm resulting from the destruction of the shuttle and the Hubble being hit by satellite remains is told to be moving so fast that it would orbit the Earth and come back to hit the main characters in 90 minutes. The problem? If the debris was indeed moving that much faster than the astronauts at the same elevation, it would break orbit and shoot off into space or, at least, move in a different orbit and, thus, be harmless to them. That's not even bringing up the fact that they have somehow caught up to the ISS which is moving in a completely different orbit from the Hubble (which is where they are) without much effort.
- The stars with pointed spikes -usually four, resembling a plus sign; however there're variants of this such as a x-shaped star-, so prominent and known after so many space images are actually caused by the vanes that support the secondary mirror of reflecting telescopes, often known along with the holder of that mirror as spidernote and do not exist in reality, nor when one sees a bright star without optical aid and/or in the space would see it with those spikes note . The effect is known as Diffraction spike and there're photographic/camera filters to simulate it.
- Same for the haloes visible around them, that are optical effects, except in some cases where those haloes are actual nebulosities surrounding the photographed star(s).
- A related effect are vertical images that often appear images of bright stars taken with telescopes that mount CC Ds -the electronic devices found at the heart of digital cameras- instead of traditional photographic plates, that are produced when the individual bins of a CCD overflown and spill in vertical as is easier to happen due to the CCD's structure, an effect known as Blooming
- In the Hans Von Hozel story Werewolves, executives on earth successfully harpoon the sun.
- The Space Ghost episode "The Heat Thing" shows Jupiter as having a solid surface with a normal atmosphere instead being a gas giant.
Reggie: Orbital wobble is one thing, but this...this is outside the laws of celestial mechanics!