Science Fact or Fiction? 10 Space Myths From Movies and TV

Space is one of Hollywood’s favorite settings. Over the years, countless sci-fi movies (from Star Wars to The Martian) and TV shows (Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly) have taken audiences on perilous journeys through the solar system and to other planets. While these titles may be thrilling to watch, they aren’t necessarily the most accurate representations of space. Here are 10 common space myths perpetuated by movies and TV.

1. Explosions in space

Death Star explodes in Star Wars

The Death Star explodes in Star Wars | 20th Century Fox

We’ve seen it in countless sci-fi films: a spacecraft blows up, emitting a huge, thunderous boom and sending up a ring of flames. At least that’s the image that the explosion of the Death Star left lingering in our minds all this time.

But an important reminder: space is a vacuum. Fire needs oxygen to burn, so those cinematic flames wouldn’t happen in space (except briefly and to a much lesser degree from any oxygen in the craft destroyed). The same goes for that loud booming noise, since sound cannot travel without gases like the ones in the Earth’s atmosphere. Actual chemical explosions in space would be more stifled, without any other elements to fuel them further.

2. Survival without spacesuits

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity | Warner Bros.

Movies have made us believe that humans will basically go splat the minute that they’re exposed to outer space without a protective suit. Depending on the film or show’s rating, eyes will pop out of skulls and there will be some sort of blood-and-guts explosion. It’s not quite that dramatic in real life.

Exposure to space will definitely kill a human being, but not instantly nor so viscerally. What really happens? As Stanley Kubrick correctly showcased in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a human being can survive exposure to space with no permanent damage — as long as they don’t linger, that is. Our skin and circulatory systems help protect the body from the environment, but only if exposed for less than 30 seconds.      

3. The dark side of the moon

The Moon

The moon | Thinkstock.com

Movies and TV shows like to perpetuate the idea that the moon has a side that’s constantly shrouded in darkness. While it’s true that the moon has one side that always faces the Earth, that doesn’t mean that the other side is constantly bathed in darkness. It’s tidally locked with the Earth, but not the sun — meaning all sides of the moon receive sunlight at different points.

4. The sun’s appearance

The Sun

The sun | iStock.com

If you ask anyone to draw the sun, chances are the first thing they’ll do is grab a yellow crayon. Movies and TV shows portray this same image, typically depicting the sun to be a burning yellow.

In actuality, the sun isn’t yellow at all — the Earth’s atmosphere only makes it appear that way. The real color of the sun is white. We know this by the sun’s surface temperature. While cooler stars usually appear red, the hottest stars typically look blue. The sun, which is almost 6,000 degrees Kelvin, falls somewhere in the middle.

On a similar note, the sun is actually glowing, not burning (meaning those wavy flames in your drawings aren’t so accurate either).

5. Asteroid belts

Scene from Star Wars (1977)

Scene from Star Wars | 20th Century Fox

Movies and TV usually portray asteroid belts as deadly and crowded; something that only the most capable of astronauts or space pilots can survive. But these films and shows fail to account for the sheer vastness of space.

In case you forgot, space is really big. So while an asteroid belt might have millions of asteroids in it, the distance between each of them is hundreds of thousands of miles. Meaning that the chance of anyone hitting one is astronomically low.

In fact, NASA scientists (who have sent almost a dozen probes through an asteroid belt without incident) have concluded that the odds of crashing into an asteroid are one in a billion.

6. Flaming meteors

Meteor: Path to Destruction | NBC

Meteor: Path to Destruction | NBC

You’ve seen it in multiple disaster movies: a meteor flies through the sky, leaving a trail of fire in its wake and then exploding in a smoky, fiery mess on the ground. But the scientific truth is that meteors don’t leave behind charred craters on impact. In fact, if meteors were to hit, they wouldn’t be all that hot. After all, they’ve been sitting in the coldness of space for billions of years. And while they warm up a bit once they enter the atmosphere, their extreme speed means they never have a chance to become as hot and flaming as the movies would have you believe.

7. All-powerful black holes

The Black Hole | Buena Vista Distribution

The Black Hole | Buena Vista Distribution

If you were to believe what movies tell you, you’d think that black holes are super powerful vacuums that suck up everything that gets too close to its perimeter. But the truth is, black holes must obey other laws of physics, just like everything else. So what does that mean exactly? Contrary to what sci-fi films tell you, black holes do not possess super gravity that can draw in everything in its wake. Black holes have finite mass and, therefore, finite gravitational force.

8. A crowded galaxy

Space | YouTube

Space | YouTube

Science fiction movies and TV shows aren’t exactly great representations of space and specifically, its immense and expansive scope. Typically, Hollywood depicts space as somewhat crowded, with various objects and planets often bunched together. Of course, in reality, everything in space is quite far apart.

9. Reaching instant speed

Gravity | Warner Bros.

Gravity | Warner Bros.

In Hollywood, spaceships seem to reach unbelievable speeds practically instantly. That, in itself, is pretty unrealistic, but what makes it even more so is the reaction of the ship’s passengers. If any craft or vehicle were to take off that fast in real life, the crew members would be flung back into their seats. But that’s not the case in the movies. Apparently, the rules of inertia don’t apply to actors.

10. Instant communication with other ships

Deep Impact | Paramount Pictures

Deep Impact | Paramount Pictures

Even if we were to buy the idea that spacecrafts could reach the speed of light in seconds, it’s completely implausible that those ships would then be able to instantly communicate with other ships or planets, the way they do in the movies. Not only is immediate communication not possible across light years, it’s even more impossible while traveling at such high speeds.

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