The newest addition to the Netflix original sci-fi collection, George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, was released just before Christmas of 2020. Somewhat depressing in its execution and redeeming and uplifting in its ending, overall this one is worth a viewing. Borrowing a bit from both Contact and Interstellar, we see Clooney’s character, Lofthouse, inspired to press on with a daughter-like figure by his side (we are at first led to believe that this is Anna, a girl lost during evacuation of this North Pole scientific research complex, but this gets turned on its head by the ending). We see the trials and tribulations of an interplanetary crew, a sight last seen just this September in Netflix release, Away. However, regardless of these and other cliches, the film is inviting enough, and does not seem too ponderous in the offing, though there are only a couple of scenes that can be described as “action packed.”
Lets get to some of the science. The big problem for me is that they seem to have discovered a new moon around Jupiter, K-23 (why the name, I do not know…we are way way beyond 23 moons for Jupiter, that’s for sure) and this moon has an Earth-like atmosphere. To have an atmosphere, the Moon would have to be large, about as large as Earth itself. Cooler worlds farther out in the Solar System can hold onto an atmosphere, though we are told that this world is warmed by natural phenomena in order to be habitable. If the Moon were this large it would have likely been discovered by Galileo over 400 years ago! I’m thinking that maybe the script originally had this as an exo-Jupiter in another star system, but perhaps placing the planet/moon closer to us would make the script a bit more believable for the 30 years in the future time frame and the time needed for the mission (a couple of years, which, by the way, is pretty fast, even for just going to Jupiter!).
At the very end, the space ship turns back. That is, on reaching Earth after visiting K-23, they decide to turnback due to a catastrophe on Earth that has made it unlivable. But this strains credulity. Certainly most current missions don’t contain double the fuel and food in case the astronauts decide to turn back! The dialog does add in some information about a gravity assist from Earth making this possible, but even so, it seems a bit strained (also, 2 crewmen return to Earth on their own and one other has died in an accident, so with only 2 crew and a potential 3rd person due to an expected birth, maybe the food would last?). Still, strained.
As a relatively minor point: It looks like we see too much of the constellation Orion as viewed from the North Pole. From the North Pole, we should only see down a bit past the belt, but shouldn’t be able to see much below that. I realize that this was likely an aesthetic choice because people can recognize the full constellation of Orion.
Another possible spoiler note: The spacecraft is called ETHER. For physics geeks out there, you would know that the “ether” was an unknown substance in space through which light was expected to propagate. The presence of ether was disproven well over a century ago, so therefore does not exist. Are we subtly being told that this space craft doesn’t really exist? Is it all a figment of Lofthouse’s imagination? Maybe. We are certainly strongly led to believe that other things he sees are not what they seem to be.
By the way, if you like what you are reading (science of science fiction), checkout my book, The Physics and Astronomy of Science Fiction (by me, Steve Bloom), available from McFarland Publishing or your favorite online bookstore (in traditional book form as well as e-book).