Galaxies Far, Far, Away: Science Behind Science Fiction

Hi, I’m Marley, the astronomer here at the Space Centre. Our theme for the month of May is the science behind science fiction. I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about my favourite science fiction movie of call time: Contact. Some spoilers will follow!

Based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Carl Sagan, the movie follows Dr. Ellie Arroway and her colleagues as she discovers a repeating signal originating from the Vega system, and the events that follow. Ellie is a radio astronomer, and she works for a program called the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, at Arecibo until funding is pulled. She ends up continuing her search for life beyond our solar system at the Very Large Array (VLA) with funding from a private donor. It is at the VLA where she discovers this repeating signal, which once decoded is actually a message containing plans on how to build a machine. I’m not going to go further into the story, but at some point, wormholes are involved.

What I love about this movie is that it involves real science throughout, and situations that we see in science today. While fiction, it is reasonable fiction, and nothing feels too out of reach. There are three cases where science fiction feels real: the cases of radio astronomy, SETI, and Dr. Ellie Arroway herself.

Radio Astronomy

The wavelength of a radio wave ranges from as small as 1cm to as large as 3km. A large telescope is necessary to collect those larger wavelengths and the larger the telescope the better of an image we get. Radio waves are how we send information to and from spacecraft. The Curiosity rover on Mars communicates to us on Earth through the Deep Space Network – a collection of radio antenna around the world. If an alien civilization were to send us a message, a radio signal would be the best way to do it.

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

Dr. Ellie Arroway

In the 35 years of work she did in SETI, Tarter was involved in many projects. Project Cyclops, a NASA project from 1971 that investigated how SETI should work, inspired her to get involved in the research. She became a project scientist for NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) in 1992 and 1993. The HRMS was a project that involved scanning ten million different frequencies using radio telescopes in order to find a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence. This project was killed by the same federal government amendment that removed funding from NASA’s SETI program. 

Project Phoenix was different in that it did not scan the whole sky, unlike projects that came before it. Instead, it looked in the vicinity of close Sun-like stars. It looked at about 800 individual star systems, all within 200 light years of our own. Unlike Ellie Arroway, Jill Tarter did not listen to these signals. Millions of radio channels were monitored by Phoenix simultaneously, so the ‘listening’ was done by computers. If an interesting signal was detected, scientists were notified. 

Ultimately, no signals from extraterrestrial life were found, though the SETI Institute continues to develop research projects to help us find out if there is life out there, and where we should look.

Check out….


120+ mins

The Science in Science Fiction

Discover more about the science in popular science fiction tv and films. Find out if your favourite science fiction show was analyzed by SETI planetary astronomer Franck Marchis on SETI’s Grudge Report.

Read this short article about the best science fiction books 

Watch this short interview about Contact’s wormhole and then read Contact (or watch the film).

Ask yourself: What is your favourite science fiction book, show or film?

60 mins

Radio Astronomy

Radio astronomy is an important tool in the search for life beyond our solar system. Find out more about radio astronomy with these activities.

Send a Signal to the Spacecraft!  Try this online game where you can learn about NASAs Deep Space Network (DSN) and how we communicate with faraway spacecraft.

Read about ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, a group of 66 radio telescopes that work together as a single telescope and take a virtual tour.

Help scientists analyze data with the Zooinverse project Radio Galaxy Zoo: LOFAR 

Ask yourself: What do you think would be one of the challenges with being a radio astronomer?

30 min

Say Hi to ET?

How to communicate with aliens is a big question (and one addressed in another film, Arrival). Discover more about some of the questions scientists are asking about communicating with inhabitants of alien worlds.

Read this short article from the Smithsonian Magazine, The Science of Aliens, Part 5: How Would They Communicate?

Read this short blog by Dirk Schulze-Makuch, professor for planetary habitability and astrobiology, about the pros and cons of sending an interstellar message to the TRAPPIST-1 system.

TRAPPIST-1 is a pretty strange name for a solar system. Read about how exoplanets (and their solar systems) get their names and name your own exoplanet. What would your planet look like? What kind of life (if any) exists there? 

Ask yourself: How do you think you would react to news of intelligent life beyond our solar system?

60+ min

Meet a Scientist

Scientist Jill Tartar is a trailblazer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Find out more about some of the scientists and their work in this exciting field.

Watch an episode from SETI Talks, a monthly public lecture series. Each lecture showcases research that is relevant to astrobiology from scientists, authors, and those from within the SETI Institute.

Check out some of the research projects and the scientists working with the Carl Sagan Center for Research (SETI Institute). 

Read more about astrobiology on our blog.

Ask yourself: If you were a scientist which area of astrobiology would you focus on?

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