Gravity, the Sequel: Why the Real Story Would Be on the Ground

We'd lose more than Facebook.
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A Russian cargo craft approaches the International Space Station. (NASA)

When it came out last year, Gravity was an immediate critical and box office success. Now it's up for 10 Academy Awards, and The Atlantic's film critic predicts Alfonso Cuarón will take home the Oscar for best director.

The film's popularity drew on the star power of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, spectacular views of the Earth from above that would make even the most skeptical believe in the Overview Effect, and thrilling collision sequences that sent space junk flying at audience’s faces in physically inaccurate but terrifying 3D.

Regardless of what happens Sunday, it’s high time that Hollywood start thinking about a sequel. For what is a big-budget blockbuster if not part of a franchise? Luckily, the makings of a sequel were tidily—and tantalizingly briefly—introduced in the first movie.

MISSION CONTROL

It’s not good. Most of our systems are going down. Debris chain reaction is out of control and rapidly expanding. Multiple sats are now down and they keep on falling.

MATT KOWALSKI

Define “multiple” sats.

MISSION CONTROL

Most of them. Telecommunications systems are gone. […]

MATT KOWALSKI

Half of North America just lost their Facebook.

This moment forms the basis of the idea for my sequel to Gravity that takes place on the planet below, imagining what happens to the rest of humankind while those realistically beautiful astronauts are up in space confronting mortality and channeling Barbarella.

What is happening on the ground at the exact moment in which astronaut Matt Kowalski dismisses the loss of “most” of Earth’s artificial satellites as a mere annoyance to social media users? 

The physical likelihood of an instantaneous cascading debris crisis as presented in Gravity has been thoroughly challenged by scientistsastronauts, and even the film’s own science advisor. However, a different look at this unlikely scenario illustrates how much of our lives are tied to outer space—unseen and largely unexamined by most of us who use satellites on a daily basis.

If all the satellites circling the planet were to fall out of the sky in the span of minutes, as they do in Gravity, we’d have a much bigger problem than a Facebook outage on our hands.

The Omnipresence of GPS

Of the many satellites that enable modern global systems of commerce, communication, energy, and transit, we are particularly reliant on GPS satellites. A “constellation” of 32 radio transmitters 20,350 km away provides timing and location services free of cost, supporting countless technological practices big and small, local and international.

GPS doesn’t just feed your personal car navigation device. Everyday technologies that seem fully ground-based, such as ATMs and domestic cell phone networks, use GPS for time and location services. Large, geographically distributed information systems require exact timing for synchronized, rapid data exchange and prevention of fraud, misdirection, and gaps in service. Cell phone towers coordinate calls using GPS, and many ATMs timestamp withdrawal information using either onboard GPS devices or connections to GPS-enabled networks, allowing banks to keep tabs on the flow of cash. (Time must be disseminated.)

The nation’s energy network depends on GPS for precise time and position data in the distribution of power from plants to the grid. Transportation systems from passenger trains to ocean freighters make use of the same services to move people and goods across vast distances on strict timetables. Facilitated by GPS, these distribution networks have grown in reach and load, achieving precision on the order of nanoseconds in the coordinated movement of massive quantities of information and material.

An artist's conception of GPS (NASA)

Anyone who has taken a flight through a major airport has seen first-hand how satellites have helped some industries field larger and larger loads. GPS has been deeply embedded in civil aviation, beyond navigation alone. While pilots and controllers use point-to-point radio to communicate, GPS keeps the messages moving and organized at most large airports. With the next generation system of civil aviation (“NextGen”) currently rolling out, GPS will replace radar as the main mechanism by which pilots and controllers know where airplanes are, both in the air and on the ground.

Older ground-based navigation systems such as VOR (VHF Omni Directional Radio Range) are being scaled down, and alternate systems such as LORAN (LOng RAnge Navigation) and its spinoffs have not received funding in the current American budget climate. Alternate surveillance systems that use radar and distance measuring equipment will remain in service, but fewer aviators will have regular practice using them and may lose expertise that would come in handy in the event of satellite loss. Pilots are trained to field problems in the airplane, but in the case of total, instantaneous GPS failure nearly every system will go wrong at once. Combined with hobbled communications and a compromised ability for pilots and controllers to “see” each other, pilots trained under NextGen rules may be severely impaired without satellites.

GPS signals are susceptible to radio jamming, and past incidents of signal loss illustrate on a local level what would happen should we lose the GPS constellation. North Korea has been accused of jamming signals in South Korea, and the U.S. Navy accidentally jammed San Diego in 2007. Should these effects take place on a global scale with the total loss of GPS satellites, the outcome would likely be catastrophic.

Remote Sensing and Communications

On February 19, NASA's Aqua satellite took this false color imagery of the Great Lakes to investigate how they had iced over.  

Satellites don’t show up in action movies during scenes of search-and-rescue or disaster response scenes. But remote sensing from space plays a major role in predicting disaster, such as tracking a brewing hurricane or the movements of a fire. Remote sensing data also provides crucial information after a crisis, such as monitoring the spread of an oil spill. Recent events in Atlanta aside, weather satellites have made a huge difference in our ability to predict and react to potentially dangerous storms. Their loss would be disastrous, as reflected in the legislative debate about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite program and the aging American weather satellite fleet.

Satellites also allow us to monitor space weather, providing forecasts much like terrestrial meteorology—except they measure and predict radiation emitted by the Sun. Should a major solar storm send large amounts of radiation our way, like one did in 1859, Earth’s electrical systems could be in trouble. Space weather forecasting from satellites affords us a degree of warning so that impacted industries can batten the hatches, so to speak.

When disasters hit, news reports from far-flung locations instantly update the American public. The loss of communications satellites beaming content across large distances would mean no more reporters in the field to keep us immediately informed on the latest news from around the world. Humanitarian relief would be less efficiently coordinated. And of course, global communication systems that have helped shrink the world in space and time over the last half century would falter. The end of the satellite age could mean the end of the modern global age as we know it.

Satellites provide a plethora of data to scientists on the ground—those who look out, and those who look down at the planet. Earth scientists, from biologists and hydrologists to archaeologists and climatologists, benefit from data gathered by remote sensing satellites. By placing space telescopes above the pesky, obscuring atmosphere, astronomers have been able to see further and more clearly than they could before the space age, opening up new parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to observation. Space science researchers who use data from deep space probes rely on orbiting satellites to relay information across the void. It might not be a life-or-death situation should we lose these links, but the thought of an already marooned Mars rover going mute is almost too much to bear.

The information provided by remote sensing satellites has seemingly endless applications. Data from passing satellites helps researchers on the ground craft policy in environmental protection, wildlife management, climate change, public health, and water resource management. Satellites even aid in agricultural planning, allowing farmers to increase yield and address problems ranging from pests to drought.

The Military in Space

General William L. Shelton, Commander of the Air Force Space Command, recently noted in a talk at George Washington University: “I can’t think of a single military operation across the full spectrum from humanitarian relief operations all the way to major combat operations that does not somehow depend on space for mission success.” In response to an awareness of the fragility and importance of the space environment, the Air Force occasionally runs a simulation drill called “A Day Without Space.”

The existence of this drill suggests that the Air Force may have some tricks up its sleeve should a day without space arrive. In fact, all four military services are currently developing ground-based alternatives to satellites in combat scenarios, driven by a mandate from Congress to provide emergency backup. In spite of these initiatives, the U.S. military remains bound to satellites. General Shelton acknowledged this reliance, stating: “I don’t really see a truly viable alternative in the near-term or the mid-term to the services and products from space.”

Satellites are in some ways victims of their own success, replacing ground-based systems that performed their job well enough, but perhaps not as quickly or as efficiently. So what can be done about this growing dependence? Should anything be done?

Gravity made a lot of us sit up and pay attention to the dangers of garbage flying around at 7.8 kilometers per second. The threat of cascading collisions of space debris has periodically popped up in space policy circles for decades. However, as of now, the predicted crisis seems either not imminent or not catastrophic enough to suggest the need to cool our invisible love affair with satellites. Protection of the space environment through debris mitigation, better space monitoring capabilities, and international cooperation seems like the way to go, rather than planning for a dystopian future without satellites.

But such a catastrophe would surely make a great movie. So, I present my amateur film treatment for:

Gravity 2: Hitting the Ground

courtesy Warner Bros.

The opening shot zooms down 500 kilometers from astronaut Kowalski’s face to an everyday American tapping away on his Facebook profile. He attempts to fill his wall with frustrated status updates about his cell phone losing signal, and anger at finding his DirecTV DVR mysteriously empty. His third cousin, who has cable, posts spoilers, then gripes about not being able to take money out of the local ATM.

An Orson Welles-like city flyover shows drivers clogging road shoulders as they wait for their personal GPS units to finish “acquiring satellites” to get their next set of directions. These satellites have been smashed to bits by debris and will never again be acquired. A sixty-year-old with a paper map becomes a local hero. He is kindly.

Unseen, off the coast, the latest, greatest Snowmageddon brews. Meteorologists collect localized data from weather balloons and radar, but the direction and magnitude of the storm cannot be determined without the big-picture view from above provided by weather satellites. Evacuation routes become parking lots as GPS-less, unforewarned citizens attempt to flee to warmer climes. The sixty-year-old and his map shiver in the gridlock.

Another everyday American has departed for what seems to be a fortuitous trip west to said warmer climes. As her commercial flight approaches Los Angeles, the handsome pilot grimaces at his control panel as the GPS navigation system winks out. Steadily more systems that rely on GPS shut down. He’s got 150 souls on board and finds himself flying blind. He attempts to communicate with air traffic control, but without satellite aid in queuing radio communications the system has become clogged. Panning out from the single airplane to the crowded airspace over LAX, and then the world, some 6,000 airplanes fly under the same emergency scenario. Despite several close calls with other airplanes, some of which crash into each other so that the 3D people will have something fun to do, the airplane lands. But our heroine cannot get back home, as all airplanes are grounded while the FAA scrambles to find a way to get by without the aid of GPS.

NASA

Our heroine attempts to get home by train, but the signaling systems used by trains are also dependent on GPS. She gives up and settles into a hotel for the night, paying with the little cash she has left after the local ATMs stopped functioning. As she enters the room, the lights switch off. A bird’s eye view of the whole region shows that the electrical grids have gone offline. The sudden loss of satellite-controlled switching that enabled higher energy loads to move from power plants to electrical distribution networks leads to massive outages across America.

On the other side of the country, the lights wink out at all the big bank buildings in New York City, which have already been hobbled by their inability to make exchanges with each other and their counterparts across the world. The necessary communications links, geographical tagging, and precise timing of transactions facilitated by satellites have stopped working. The modern international financial machine grinds to a standstill.

Cut to a scene of a four star general shouting at his staff. Not only can the U.S. military services not tell if a nuke is headed our way, but other crucial surveillance capacities are down, communications with forces deployed the world over have ceased, and military submarines, ships, and planes are all on panic mode without their satellite-based instruments. An ocean away, a drone flies over enemy territory, cut off from its remote pilot by a satellite communication link that has gone kaput. A huge diplomatic uproar ensues when the drone runs out of fuel and crashes somewhere it ought not to be. The four star general yells some more about invisible nukes. Apocalypse looms, unseen by our now-blind eyes in the sky.

This doomsday scenario finds resolution last minute by good old American elbow grease, acts of unlikely cooperation, and dumb luck. Heroic diplomat/soldier/president responsible for saving the world engages in dramatic acts of handsomeness.

In the final sequence, we zoom in on a lone individual wintering at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. The power is still on, money a non-issue, and she’s not going much of anywhere for the next three months. She works on a satellite computer, hitting refresh on a browser window in frustration that her status update just won’t take. 500 km above, Kowalski experiences a moment of poorly timed self-satisfaction.

This sets the stage for the feel-good third installment of the franchise trilogy: Gravity 3: Taking Out the Trash. Spoiler alert: There will be space fishing nets.

True to the original film, some of the scenes portrayed here are embellished for maximum explosions and danger to attractive people.

But the core of the matter holds: We are utterly, deeply bound to our satellites. Bad things can happen in space—not necessarily the simultaneous collisions of Gravity, but physical and cyber attacks, space debris, and even climate change pose real threats to our information infrastructure in orbit. If we were to lose all satellites, or even “most of them,” the biggest drama will take place on the ground.

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Lisa Ruth Rand is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies the environmental history of near-Earth space.

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