Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the old Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold... in space.
An inversion of Convection Schmonvection
, Space Is Cold is the widely held misconception that space is in itself "cold." We hear Speculative Fiction
writers blather about "the cold depths of space" or "the freezing void." If you get thrown into space
, you're going to freeze straight away, assuming you don't explode
Actually, Space Does Not Work That Way
. In brief, there are two reasons why. But before we explore them, let's recap what "freezing" actually means. In short, the process of freezing means "heat leaves you". There are two ways heat can leave you: 1) convection/conduction and 2) radiation.
- Convection and conduction is simply touching an object, or liquid, or gas. If that which you touch has a lower temperature than you, your heat flows out of you leaving you colder.
- Radiation means that you are radiating energy... or simply put: you are glowing. You are essentially a giant infrared light bulb. The thing that powers this lightbulb is your heat. Unless your heat is replenished by convection/conduction, energy from food or incoming radiation... your heat will run out and you will become colder.
So why isn't space cold?
The first reason is that temperature and heat are physical properties of matter. Space is the exact opposite of matter. Space is the absence of all matter. Asking "what is the temperature of space?" is like asking a bald person what their hair color is.note
This means you cannot touch space because there is nothing to touch in the first place. This is turn means heat loss by convection or conduction cannot happen in space. (Touching the surface of your spacecraft however can be a whole different story).
The second reason is that radiating heat is a slow process, especially if you are in a space suit. Space suits are made to be cold (or hot for that matter) on the surface, meaning that as soon as the surface of a space suit turns cold, it radiates a lot less energy. And more important: depending on where you are in space you can have incoming radiation that balances out - or overcomes - your heat loss.
In other words, if you are too close to the Sun (or any other star) you will not freeze when exposed to space; you will either be kind of cozy, or you might burn.
Where is the comfort zone? Suppose you put on your swimming trunks, don a fishbowl style helmet, and go outside your spacecraft for some tanning... what would happen?
- At the orbit of Venus, you'd burn to death. Don't even think about it because the Sun will(!) fry you.
- In Earth orbit you'd slowly work your way up to a heat stroke, and then die. You'd get a severe sunburn in just a few minutes since the effective intensity of the Sun when outside the atmosphere is about 1.5 to 3 times as strong as on the surface of (most of) the Earth on a hot, sunny day. In about half an hour you'd have second degree burns on most of your body exposed to the Sun. If the bends don't get you, you will eventually die from overheating.
- At the orbit of Mars, you'd freeze, but rather slowly.
As for spaceships becoming incredibly cold when left without power, the real trouble with spaceships is getting rid
of all the heat they produce, so that the engines don't cook the crew to death. Indeed, spaceships are designed to radiate heat as much as possible, and have heaters that more or less kick on when their engines aren't burning. That's why everything was cold in Apollo 13.
For more information, visit the analysis page
Nonetheless, "cold space" is a near-universal trope in Speculative Fiction
, to the point that aversions are met with disbelief
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Anime and Manga
- An especially obvious example occurs in the Super Dimension Fortress Macross episode "Space-Fold", in which, after being launched into space, South Ataria Island, and the ocean around it, freezes over, The Day After Tomorrow-style. The fact that this was due to a hyperdrive accident may excuse the wonky physics, but it's clearly meant to invoke this trope. Later averted when a character is exposed to space for several minutes without ill effects.
- Of course, this was also present in the English version of the series; the Robotech novelization of the scene drew attention to the fact it didn't make sense, and credited the enigmatic shapings of Protoculture with causing the unusual effect.
- At the end of the second part of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, the literally indestructible Cars is defeated by launching him into space. He tries to get back by venting his body's stored air to send him back to earth... but the water vapor freezes, sealing off the holes he uses to vent, and he ends up drifting through space for eternity until his mind shuts off, effectively killing him.
- Zigzagged in Valvrave the Liberator. The Valvraves' operational time is limited by how long it takes them to overheat, and in vacuum the mechs are shown to have severe difficulty venting all that heat. However, in another episode, some water vented into space immediately turns into ice crystals (and is used to cool the Valvraves), rather than vaporizing as would actually happen.
- In the Iron Man miniseries Bad blood, bad guy Justin Hammer ends up being flushed into outer space together with the contents of a swimming pool; it instantly freezes around him, leaving us with the sight of a bewildered, frozen old man inside a block of ice. The story goes on to claim he is in suspended animation and might (ironically, in context) live forever.
Films — Animated
- Titan A.E. averts this trope when Korso kicks through the canopy of a damaged craft, propelling himself and Cale to safety with a fire extinguisher. Even with their eyes open, nothing freezes.
- In the climax of Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Darkseid is launched into the vacuum of space by Boom Tube and immediately freezes solid.
Films — Live-Action
- In Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Doctor Evil is worried that Mini-Me may have caught a cold from being out in the 'cold of space' (Mini-Me was otherwise absolutely fine, even after spinning off into space for at least several hours).
- The Reality Is Unrealistic aspect is demonstrated by all the people who think they found a huge plot hole in the live-action Transformers movie, where Megatron freezes upon crash-landing in the arctic, and Cybertronians are stated to be weakened by freezing temperatures, but of course can manage space just fine (they're also expecting Elemental Baggage, incidentally); an example features in this comic.
- Sunshine also carried this trope to an extreme; when performing a dangerous jump across space from one spaceship to another, crew members wrapped themselves in the ship's insulation. All were shivering and one had developed frostbite from the time in space (which appeared to be thirty seconds, at most). There was also a guy whose body shattered when he struck a part of the ship. Made even sillier since they don't follow their own Movie Physics: The crew states that space is -272 degrees Celsius, just above absolute zero. If space really was that cold and it had enough particles to freeze a bare person so quickly, a few sheets of insulation aren't going to protect you from instantaneously turning into a block of ice when they blow the airlock. Keep in mind the actual temperature of space could easily be 3 kelvins, or -270 degrees Celsius.
- In the space film Mission to Mars, Tim Robbins plays an astronaut who finds out at one point during the film (an escape sequence) that he is drifting off into space, and voluntarily elects to remove his helmet (to avoid smashing into Mars at terminal velocity, and to prevent his wife from mounting a futile rescue attempt). The moment he removes his helmet, his face instantaneously freezes (we see from behind his head) and he goes floating away, dead.
- Averted in Avatar — if you pay close attention as the ship arrives, you'll see heat sinks glowing red hot. It is also mentioned in the background that the first ISV, needing to use cold superconductors, was over 3 times the size due to the extra thermal load of the cooling systems for the engines, requiring much larger radiators.
- In a story explaining the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke notes that the Discovery One spaceship should have had large radiating surfaces to dissipate the heat from the reactors powering it. They were not put in because they didn't want to have to spend the time explaining why a ship that never enters an atmosphere has "wings".
- Probably the first-ever appearance of this was in the 1954 SF movie Riders to the Stars, in which this happens to one of the titular astronauts. He drifts for a moment right in front of the camera view, so that you can see that he's been turned into an Instant Mummy. Unlike most of these examples, the writers have an excuse; empirical evidence on the effects of the vacuum of space on the human body was rather lacking back then.
- Averted in Iron Sky: Washington and Renate survive without any protective gear (and in Renate's case, very little clothing) even when Washington accidentally opens the airlock for a minute.
- Great example in the 2012 film Lockout when, after being reminded of how cold out is in space, the warden is placed in an airlock and the outer door opened - his entire body freezes in about one second.
- The Black Hole: A passing meteorite knocks a hole in the dome of a hydroponics bay. In an instant, everything and everyone is covered with a layer of frost. Possibly justified owing to the likely humidity in the room.
- In Halo: The Cole Protocol the Manipulative Bastard of the book ends up trapped in an escape capsule in space and contemplates whether he'll asphyxiate or die of hypothermia when the electricity, and therefore heat, run out. Possibly Truth in Television (Literature?) given that it's not stated how long the air supply in the capsule is good for and it likely would get quite cold within a few days of the heaters shutting off, if that long.
- The Culture
- Excession, by Iain M. Banks, has a particularly bad example: Upon being Thrown Out the Airlock, a character's eyes and mouth freeze (which is realistic), followed instantly by a description of his brain freezing over in a matter of seconds.
- By the time he wrote Surface Detail, Banks had apparently learned from fans who wrote in about that. A character's ship dies and she contemplates the irony of how her body will probably be recovered frozen solid after several weeks even though she's actually going to die of heatstroke.
- In Have Space Suit – Will Travel, Robert A. Heinlein very carefully averts this trope, and explains why it needs averting.
- In Joe Haldeman's Forever War, it is also carefully averted: The Powered Armor used by the military on frigid planets around dead stars actually requires radiators to boil away the heat and keeping most of the suit's outside cool enough not to boil the solid hydrogen or methane they are standing on; If a radiator malfunctions, the human inside runs risk of dying of the heat in the vacuum of space.
- In C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, all space travel is in the inner solar system (from Earth to Mars and back), so the sun is relatively near to Weston's spaceship, always visible, and makes things very hot within the ship. When Ransom comments, "I always thought space was dark and cold," he is met with scorn for his naivete. "Forgot about the Sun, did you?"
- In John Ringo's Into the Looking Glass series, the Alliance Space Ship Vorpal Blade comes complete with a very long extendable heat exchanger, specifically due to how the lack of convection will eventually overheat the ship. Combat is often limited by the heat. The ship also has to stop every so often while just traveling around in order to "chill out" (as the procedure becomes known on the ship).
- All The Weyrs Of Pern has dragons In Space with their riders, having to work on the spaceships quickly before they freeze to death. However, it's actually a very nice aversion. Dragons can survive without air for about 15 minutes. The temperature problem comes from the spaceships having been powered down for 2500 years, plenty of time for them to reach equilibrium with the environment, and the dragons are equipped with special gloves to insulate their paws.
- In James Swallow's Warhammer 40,000 Deus Sanguinius, when Rafen gets to the spaceship on the outside of a shuttle, he, despite his gear having its vacuum seals intact, suffers from the "incredible cold" and is stiff afterward.
- In C. J. Cherryh's Chanur Saga, it is mentioned that the cargo hold is really cold because they only turn the heating on when they're actually working inside. This might be accurate, though, as the amount of time they spend between stations is indeterminate due to time dilation.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy averts this. It says that if you hold a lungful of air, you can survive for up to 30 seconds. Which, luckily for Ford and Arthur, is all that they needed. A lungful of air, on the other hand, might have led to Explosive Decompression; this is amended in the computer game, where it's changed to hyperventilating and emptying your lungs.
- "Wait It Out" by Larry Niven has an astronaut trapped on Pluto. He decides to strip naked in vacuum and freeze as fast as possible, hoping to avoid frostbite and be cryogenically preserved for later rescue. Fortunately he is trained to get in and out of his spacesuit quickly, because after he opens the first seal on his helmet, he's made an icicle in under a minute. At night time on Pluto, he becomes so cold that his nervous system becomes a superconductor. This allows him to think until the sun switches him off.
- Nicely addressed and averted in Charles Stross's Atrocity Archives, in which a character is able to wear a thin, non-insulating suit to walk on a no-atmosphere planet and begins to feel uncomfortably cold in the suit only after he's entered a facility with a pressurized atmosphere.
- In Chindi, one unlucky pilot is hit with a blast of cold (followed immediately by Explosive Decompression) after a hull breach. Another man is trapped in a compartment separated from the ship by the process of rescuing him, and it's a race to complete the rescue as everything inside it starts icing over.
- In Animorphs, Elfangor has to leave the ship he's in to retrieve the Time Matrix while racing against the extreme temperatures of space, invoking this trope.
- The final battle in The Flight of the Eisenstein takes place on the Moon's surface. The narrative repeatedly notes Garro's reaction to the cold and the ice on his enemy's exposed body.
- The Star Carrier series falls victim to this despite the author having Shown His Work elsewhere. Water is described as flash-freezing when exposed to space when it should actually boil.
- Spoofed in the Flight of the Conchords song "Bowie", in which they ask if the coldness in space makes your nipples pointy.
- One Flash Gordon comic published in the '70s featured a woman who leapt from the airlock of one ship to another nearby, without a space suit. She made a mental note of keeping her eyes closed so they wouldn't immediately freeze (there is some truth to that as liquid flash-boils and freezes in a vacuum, though whether the writers had that in mind is another matter). Of course, she was previously Made of Iron in a grueling process (so she could perform manual labor on Mercury), not to mention a Badass Normal before that.
- Played with in Call of Cthulhu. Space Mead will protect a human from 'the vacuum and vicissitudes' of space. Of course, the effect ends as soon as you reach your destination, so watch where you're going... and do keep a dose for the way back, will you?
- BattleTech averts this on the surface in that one major concern of spacecraft is in fact the threat of overheating in combat...but its 'heat sinks' (really just compact high-tech heat pumps with radiators) still seem to have suspiciously little trouble venting said heat into space to cool off again.
- In Eclipse Phase, biomorphs without vacuum sealing can spend one minute in space as long as they keep their lungs empty and their eyes shut. While the game makes it clear that Explosive Decompression and boiling organs are fantasies of the pre-Fall media, characters do still take 10 points of cold damage per minute the second they enter space without thermal protection. This is especially jarring considering that Eclipse Phase constantly prides itself at being one of the most "hard sci-fi" games out there (except when it comes to alien or post-singularity phenomena, but then it's just Clarke's Third Law at work)
- Even stranger when one book specifically notes that a hard vacuum is a decently good insulator and that freezing to death isn't really a concern.
- Played with in the Paranoia adventure Clones in Space, which features an Explosive Decompression Table that determines a character's fate when expelled into space ... and decides whether you freeze, boil, explode, or suffocate randomly and differently for each character.
- Averted in both GURPS in general and Transhuman Space in particular. The books go out of the way to remind that space itself is neither hot nor cold.
- In Angry Birds Space, if a pig goes beyond an atmosphere and into actual space, they instantly freeze. If they don't re-enter an atmosphere within 2 seconds, they die. Not a problem for the birds, as they are in superhero mode and, thus, ruled by Batman Can Breathe in Space.
- In Space Station 13, going into space without a spacesuit + helmet causes the temperature to drop to nothing and causes massive damage to your person.
- In EVE Online you leave a frozen corpse when your pod is destroyed. However, said pod which was filled with a goo that made from dead human cells, which probably boiled over when it hit the vacuum. And this isn't what kills you, it's the neurotoxin and burning brain scanner activated on pod breach, which is used to put your mind in a new cloned body.
- Also note that one of the damage types in the game is Thermal.
- Used several times in the MechWarrior series of video games, where battles in space or on planets with no atmosphere allowed your Mech to cool off much faster than normal. Mechs and aerospace fighters are described as using heat sinks to vent heat, which are sometimes described as being specialized to work in a vacuum. Mechwarrior Living Legends has the map, Extremity, which takes place on a rotating asteroid near a star. At night, temperatures drop to -150 degrees Celsius, causing all the industrial-runoff lakes to freeze over. When the sun comes up, however, the temperature skyrockets to 250 degrees Celsius, causing part of the asteroid's surface to vaporize, the lakes to melt, and causing players to overheat their battlemechs even more easily
- Dead Space averts this. Any area exposed to space shows no signs of freezing. One oxygen-deprived area is frozen over, but the announcement system mentions that the area has both life support and climate control malfunctions.
- Mass Effect nailed their aversion of this trope. The Codex goes quite in-depth about heat management. Ships have many ways of dumping heat, from radiative stripes on the hull (oft called tiger-stripes or war paint due to the way they light up on thermal imaging), to a liquid-droplet heat exchange system used in extreme battle conditions. It is also noted that heat is the predominant concern in an engagement, and that ships must disengage when the build-up is too great. Battles near a planet are brief and frantic because the star's radiative heat causes the ships to overheat faster. It is also noted as the reason why Normandy cannot use the stealth system for too long: heat is stored in special sinks within the ship note , but if left operating for too long it would eventually bake the crew. In fact that is the only way to have Stealth in Space.
- However, one of the weapon mods for the guns includes a barrel that has a possibility of eliminating friction produced by the gun completely, meaning it has a chance of not overheating. Laws of Thermodynamics be damned.
- The intro to Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter shows a Suul'ka teleporting into space from an ocean, appearing to be encased in a shell of water which has flash-frozen in space. The Suul'ka then breaks the icy shell, signifying its "birth".
- In X3: Albion Prelude, the achievement for forcing another pilot to eject is titled "It's Cold Outside". This may be a Red Dwarf reference.
- Naev averts this trope. Heat generated by your ship's weapons is transferred to sinks inside the ship, which gradually radiate it. As your weapons heat up, their accuracy and rate of fire degrades. As your ship's hull heats up, you become more visible (ships can detect you at longer range, and hostiles will shoot at you more), and outfits cool more slowly. Ships cool more slowly near stars.
- Starbound plays it straight as well, your character freezes quite fast on moons and in asteroid fields unless wearing something warm like snow infantry armor or aegisalt armors and above, that or just simply start a campfire.
- Very specifically averted in this Darths & Droids comic.
- Averted in Freefall, when Helix says he does not need air to survive, and Florence replies that he is air-cooled
- Rather fortunate as he was apparently planning a "really funny joke" once they got into space.
- The Magic School Bus The first episode features the class landing on Pluto, which has an atmosphere that is very cold but also extremely thin (at most estimated to have 1/350,000 the air pressure of the surface of the Earth), after Janet is stubborn about leaving Arnold forces the issue by removing his helmet, his head instantly freezes.
- Malo Korrigan had this played straight and averted. One episode had Malo floating in space dressed only in ordinary clothes and a breathing mask. He was okay afterward.
- But in another his ship got crabs... erm, lava crabs. To kill them he flushed them out in the space which is cold, it kills them instantly. As well as tossing one of the crewmates outside to cool her off.
- Transformers Prime averts this. The Autobots have no problems in space, they have a lot more concern with the Arctic, though, where Sub-zero temperatures are a major concern.
- Averted in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The air conditioning system of the new Watchtower was broken and so everyone kept complaining about the heat.
- In The Secret Saturdays, Doc flies a jet fighter into space, which freezes on the way up. He shatters the ice on the nose as he leaves the cockpit. When he gets back, the now-exposed cockpit is frozen over, as is the spot he had cleared before.
- The crew of the Apollo 13 had to shut down almost all of the electronic systems to conserve power after an explosion crippled their ship. After three days, the astronauts reported near-freezing temperatures in the Lunar Module and even condensation and ice forming on the interior. The only reason the temperature situation was so bad was because the Apollo command modules, Odyssey included, had been designed to radiate extra heat and make up the difference from waste heat from the electronics. After all, it's a lot easier to make heat than get rid of it. Shown in the movie.
- Soyuz T-13, or rather the space station Salyut-7 they were repairing, was frozen to -40 centigrade due to power system failure. This wasn't instantaneous, of course - contact was lost after the onboard batteries were drained in February, but the next crew didn't arrive until September, which means it took six months for the temperature to drop that low.
- Fortunately averted with the Vostok spacecraft. The only reason the Vostok cosmonauts couldn't open their capsule up and go on EVA was because the onboard electronics were air-cooled, so they would rapidly and fatally overheat in the vacuum of space.
- The hyper-futuristic for its time Sänger Orbital Bomber project of 1941 relied on a flight path of skipping the denser air around 40 km altitude alternating with jumps into upper atmosphere which were to cool the spacecraft by exposing it to the cold vacuum of the space. Nowadays it can be easily said there were far more chances to burn the spacecraft like a meteor.