Our knowledge of outer space is a lot like our knowledge of history -- it's really hard to separate what we know from research from what we picked up from movies. In both cases, this means that a lot of our everyday knowledge about space is just laughably wrong.
Yep, it's not enough for space to make us feel small -- it needs to make us feel stupid, too.
(If you're reading this, you must love Star Wars. So why not watch Cracked's Adventures in Jedi School mini-series?)
Remember how in The Empire Strikes Back the temporarily hyperdriveless Han Solo had to navigate through a chaotic asteroid field in an attempt to evade the Empire? The damn things were packed so closely, not even the tiny TIE fighters could sweep between them without getting squished by colliding hunks of stone. And those asteroid fields were everywhere -- in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan winds up in the exact same predicament, swerving and dodging as huge space rocks miss his ship by inches.
Also missed: Plot, urgency, the existence of Boba Fett without a stupid back story.
But that's just the way asteroid belts are, right? As C-3PO will tell you, the chances of successfully navigating an asteroid field are slim to none. It's basically a stampede, only instead of pissed-off cows, you're facing millions of huge murderous space boulders.
Here's a pic of the asteroid belt in our solar system. It kind of looks just like the one from Star Wars:
Although it could really use a couple of extra Dewbacks. We'll take care of that in editing.
And there are loads of asteroids in that belt, true enough -- it features about half a million asteroids that we know of. However, there are also lots and lots of miles for them to cross. Lots and lots. To the point that when NASA had to send a probe through it, their scientists said the odds of colliding with an asteroid were one in a billion. So basically Han could have blindfolded himself and steered through our asteroid belt with his dick, secure in the knowledge that the odds of hitting an asteroid in the middle of an asteroid belt aren't a whole lot higher than the odds of you hitting one while driving your car to the grocery store.
That sounds crazy looking at the picture up there, but no picture of space really conveys the distances. For instance, once upon a time, our asteroid belt had way more asteroids in it (about a thousand times more, in fact). Even if Han had to fly through that density of asteroids, he'd find that each asteroid has a mind-boggling 400,000 square miles to itself.
It's empty. That's why it's called space.
You could argue that maybe in the particular galaxy Star Wars takes place in they for some reason have superdense asteroid belts, but that's actually impossible -- the whole problem is that over time, the asteroids will disperse. If they were as close as the Star Wars belt, for instance, each time an asteroid bumped into another, they would go flying off into outer space, with nothing to stop them.
This means that actually getting hit by an asteroid in an asteroid belt is less a matter of not paying attention and more a matter of veering off course by a good couple of million miles. And actively trying to find an asteroid. And then somehow intercepting it at the perfect time, with the perfect velocity and the accurate trajectory. You'd need a hell of a space pilot with a hell of a death wish.
And a tolerance for giant space cocks.
Of all the horrible space things out there, black holes are probably the best proof that the universe really hates us. They're invisible, they're ominous, they're huge and they hoover everything within light years into their incomprehensible void.
But enough about your scary demon ghost-mom. She cleans up good.
Because of this tendency to hose up everything in their vicinity, black holes are pretty much contractually obligated to appear in every sci-fi epic worth its salt. From the planet-Vulcan-destroying black hole in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek to the ones in Stargate SG-1 and Doctor Who, the black hole is consistently portrayed as an inescapable vortex of destruction, slurping at our universe through a straw.
It's like a million nerds cried out in horror and were suddenly reminded that this is a Star Wars quote.
Let's imagine you woke up tomorrow and found that somebody had replaced our sun with a black hole. And say the black hole is the same mass as our sun. What would happen?
OK, we'd all freeze to death because the sun is gone. There is that. But we certainly wouldn't get sucked in -- or even slowly fall in, flailing our hands comically.
"My only regret is not capturing this image for my desktop wallpaperrrrrrr!"
While black holes are certainly frightening, they're not nearly as powerful as most people think. We forget that, as big as they are, they still have mass. This means that no matter how big and absurdly strong they might seem, they also have finite strength.
In other words, a black hole is just like every other object in the universe, in that its gravitational pull can only be as powerful as its mass allows it to be. If it's the mass of the sun, its pull is the same as the sun's. No more, no less. Physics is a thing even black holes have to obey. There is no special mechanism that makes it suck things in beyond regular ol' gravity, and gravity has to obey the same rules as everything else.
And that means no loitering, asshole.
Say what you want about the universe, that last sentence makes us feel a bit better about it. It's comforting to know that even something that can drag time itself into the drain has to play by house rules.
Quick, grab a crayon and draw the sun. If you grabbed anything other than the yellow one, you're a smartass, or else you're about to fail kindergarten.
"I'm failing at a 10th grade level!"
The sun is yellow; that's one of the first things most kids learn about it, right after the whole "hot" thing but before the "horrific mass of nuclear hellfire" part. The color of the sun is one of the easiest things in the world to verify, if you don't mind your eyeballs catching fire after staring at it too long. Hell, even its classification is yellow dwarf.
Actually, we have a pretty good idea of what color the rest of our immediate space is, too. That's because we have plenty of visual material of our galactic 'hood, from the pictures provided by Hubble to numerous satellite images and the various probes roaming the solar system. That's how Hollywood knows what color the Martian sand under Arnold should be when he does the eye-bulge fandango in Total Recall.
We've always assumed they just killed off his stunt double for this scene.
At the risk of crushing the memory of every painting you had to make in grade school art class, the sun is not really yellow, nor is it engulfed in wavy flames. In fact, it doesn't really look like anything much. An intergalactic cue ball, maybe.
The reason the sun appears like it does to us is Earth's atmosphere, which makes its rays appear yellow-tinted. However, the temperature of the Sun is 6,000 degrees Kelvin, and any star of that particular temperature has only one color it can be: white.
Boring white, too. Here's a picture of the sun viewed from space, courtesy of NASA:
It's like the testicle of an albino man with impeccable skin care.
Yes, the sun looks like the moon, but without the face to make it interesting.
But what about the rest of our solar system? We're not dependent on our eyes when it comes to the colors of, say, Mars. We've got pictures. Hell, we had a Mars rover that was right there on the ground, it took snapshots of the red planet from inches away.
So, yes, you can call Photoshop on space.
It's not NASA's fault -- extraterrestrial photography is tricky, and the pictures that result do not necessarily represent the most accurate version of the subject. Instead, the scientists involved in the process tend to go for the combination of colors that help their work the most. Zolt Levay of the Space Telescope Science Institute says:
"The colors in Hubble images are neither 'true' colors nor 'false' colors, but usually are representative of the physical processes underlying the subjects of the images. They are a way to represent in a single image as much information as possible that's available in the data."
So, yeah. Basically, all those awesome pictures space research has been throwing our way for years are nothing but black and white images colored in to show how much science each part of the picture features. The Mars rover will send back this:
And NASA will run it through filters to approximate what the full color version would look like if you were actually there sitting on the rover:
New Mexico floating in pee.
But then you have to remember that Mars gets less than half as much sunlight as the Earth, and that said light is shining down through an atmosphere full of dust made of iron oxide (rust) particles. What we're saying is, the question of "What color is ________?" never has a simple answer when you're talking about outer space.