FILM REVIEW: Out-of-this-world "Living Universe" imagines the first mission beyond our solar system
Living Universe is a beautiful, intriguing and mind-blowing documentary imagining the perilous first mission to a planet outside our solar system, and the search for alien life in our universe. Narrated by Australian science populariser Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, the journey takes place 150 years in the future, using technology and engineering predicted by leading space scientists.
Launched in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has been hard at work looking out into the universe to find planets in other solar systems. Before Kepler, these exoplanets were very difficult to find, only detected by the teeny-tiny dimming in starlight detected by Kepler when the planet passes in front of the star.
The NASA astrophysicist Natalie Batalha provides an analogy: Imagine the tallest skyscraper in your city, bright light emanating from all windows. One person in an office lowers the blinds by a centimetre. These are the scale of changes that the Kepler Space Telescope is detecting from trillions of kilometres away. As of August 2018, the Kepler Space Telescope has identified 2650 confirmed exoplanets, and 30 exoplanets less than twice-Earth size at temperatures that support liquid water.
Living Universe follows the artificial intelligence-led mission to Minerva B, an imagined exoplanet 45 trillion kilometres away. The mission has to be directed by an AI, as it is too long for a human to survive, and the huge distances rule out remote control from Earth. Communications would take years to travel from a command centre to the spacecraft, so the AI must be programmed to anticipate every possibility, identify its mistakes, and correct itself to keep the mission on track.
Minerva B sits in its star’s goldilocks zone, the distance from a star with temperatures allowing for liquid water to exist. Not too close, boiling it away into steam, and not too far, with a snowball planet with an inhospitable surface. Juuuuuuust right to support carbon-based life as we know it. In our solar system, Venus is too close to the sun, and has a runaway greenhouse effect generating average temperatures of 462°C. Mars is too far, experiencing freezing cold winters that reach as low as -125°C. Our planet, Earth, sits comfortably in between, with a climate that can currently support life.
The cinematography of Living Universe captures Earth in all its beauty, and the journey to the Minerva system is produced immaculately. The Minerva mission spacecraft passes a 90-year-old Mars colony, and the satellite Voyager 2, which as of today is the second fastest and furthest man-made object in the universe, just behind its sister Voyager 1. Voyager 2 is the only satellite to have visited Uranus or Neptune, and carries the Golden Record, holding a complex interstellar message from Earth. Today, Voyager 2 is in the heliosheath, travelling at a speed of 15 kilometres per second. For the Minerva mission to reach the exoplanet within a single human lifetime, it has to travel 3900 times faster, at 20% the speed of light. At these speeds, it would take 6 seconds to travel from the Earth, to the Moon, and back again.
4 out of 5 solars
To find out how the AI directs a search for life on an alien exoplanet, see Living Universe at Event Cinemas Whitford City and Innaloo on Saturday August 18th. Space scientist Alexandre M. King and NASA exoplanet specialist Megan Shabram will attend a Q&A session following the film at Event Cinemas Innaloo following the film (6:30pm) as a part of National Science Week (11th-19th August).