Avatar's Pandora made possible

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Monday, December 28, 2009

Distant exoplanets can easily have habitable moons, as this illustration shows, and soon we’ll be able to find them in real life! David A. Aguilar, CfA photo
At the risk of being pegged as Astronomy’s entertainment reporter, I wonder what you all think about James Cameron’s latest sci-fi epic, Avatar. To those of a certain age, Cameron may be best-known as Mr. Titanic, but he’s also the guy who brought us Aliens, the Terminator movies, and The Abyss. Clearly, the guy knows how to make a movie. And so far, Avatar has received pretty good reviews, in addition to semi-fawning descriptions of the apparently revolutionary technology that went into making it. Plus it’s in 3-D.

But of course in these circles, that’s all secondary. Much of Avatar takes place on an alien moon called Pandora, which, like the Star Wars moon of Endor, is a habitable planet orbiting an inhabitable one far from us. (The latter moon being far, far away.) And, as with the more dismal and typical film 2012, enterprising scientists are using the movie as an opportunity to engage the public in real science.

Specifically, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (among others) announced last week that such moons are not only possible, but will soon be within our ability to detect.

Some overzealous science sites even took the opportunity to explain (or remind us) how 3-D projection works.

I haven’t seen Avatar yet, but I fully intend to, both because I’m a fan of movies in general and because I’m curious just how plausible its events seem. Hollywood doesn’t always have the best record when it comes to good science, so to hear that this mega-blockbuster of a movie has at least this one credible aspect brightens my heart.

So how about you? Have you seen it, or do you plan to? Was it realistic science? (Please, though, no spoilers!) Do you think it can do the near-impossible and get ordinary folks to care about science?

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