december 2011


New 3D Film Puts Space Junk In Your Face

In January 2007, the Chinese military decided to demonstrate its technological prowess by shooting down one of its own satellites in orbit. The action was condemned by governments around the world, but many people may not have realized the real consequence. The Earth's orbit was getting very cluttered with satellites and debris after some 50 years of launches from Earth. But this one decision to explode a satellite in space contributed thousands of potentially deadly projectiles (golf ball sized or larger) into many orbits around the Earth. Each object in orbit is typically flying around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour (27,400 km/h). The European Space Agency then shared a press release describing the problem of space debris including some 3D visualizations.

posterThat was then. This is now. And now means the imminent release of Space Junk 3D, a new IMAX 3D film spotlighting the danger from human-made orbital rubbish in an effort to raise awareness regarding a thus-far unchecked interstellar threat. Space Junk 3D is presented by Melrae Pictures, an award-winning creator of 3D and 2D entertainment for theatrical, broadcast, Internet and mobile distribution. The movie was produced by Melissa Butts and Kim Rowe and directed by Ms. Butts. columnist Leonard David, last year's winner of the National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines, has had an advance look at the new IMAX 3D film Space Junk 3D, set to open on January 13 at the Omnimax Dome in St. Louis.

"Outer space is peppered with upper-stage rocket bodies weighing several tons," David notes. "Adding to the mess is everything from paint chips to cast-off bolts, pieces from exploded rocket stages and other miscellaneous fragments.

"It is estimated that low-Earth orbit contains 6,000 tons of space junk. And geosynchronous Earth orbit is home to 400 dead satellites, parked in higher graveyard orbits, where they will remain for hundreds of years."

Blending scientific information with state-of-the-art, 3D visualizations, Space Junk 3D takes the viewer from the depths of Meteor Crater in Arizona to the growing spread of Earth-orbiting debris--a troubling legacy of more than five decades of multiple nations lofting space hardware.

Space Junk 3D--Behind the New IMAX Movie

"After half a century of space exploration we're now suddenly faced with what has long been a staple of science fiction ... an orbiting junkyard of cast-off space debris," notes popular British character actor Tom Wilkinson, who narrates the film.

Reports David: "In the film, a number of ideas for ridding space of leftover debris are showcased. One idea is to use an electrodynamic tether that would de-orbit a spacecraft by generating drag through interactions between currents in the tether and the Earth's magnetic field. This increased drag would lower the spacecraft out of orbit until it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.

“Another scheme involves capturing debris with a space net, which, like the tether, could be powered using the Earth's magnetosphere. Also, lasers are highlighted that could one day sweep space, slowing down smaller objects and causing them to tumble into the atmosphere.

“In addition, solar sails could someday be a part of newly launched satellites, a resource held in reserve and ready to help spacecraft de-orbit once their work above Earth is completed.

“As for spacecraft tumbling out of orbit, they burn up in the atmosphere regularly. However, not all spacecraft-related pieces perish upon re-entry and can reach the Earth's surface at very high speeds. Luckily, 70 percent of the Earth's surface is water, greatly reducing the chances that a piece of space junk will descend into a populated area."

Michael Reher: ‘This video is a Public Service Announcement meant to inform and educate the population outside of the aerospace community of why we have space debris and why it is important that we work together to clean up space. For over 50 years now we have been launching satellites into space to explore our planet and the rest of the universe. But satellites are very expensive so in order to save money after they are dead we just leave them to orbit forever, becoming space debris and polluting low earth orbit. This pollution is dangers to current and future satellites because these objects are moving so fast that if they collide the results are devastating. Such was the case of the Iridium-Cosmos collision in 2009 that turned 2 objects into 1500 much smaller objects.’

In a statement released to promote the film, story consultant Don Kessler, a retired senior scientist (widely regarded as the "father of space junk") for NASA's Orbital Debris Program, admits it is no coincidence "that media headlines of falling debris are growing just as we launch this film. As we started researching this story we found that most scientists agree we've reached this tipping point where orbital debris will continue to grow exponentially if we don't address the problem."

In 1978 Kessler's landmark paper, "Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt" (PDF file), detailed the science behind what is now unofficially known as the "Kessler Syndrome." That space-based disorder describes how space junk collides with other space junk, resulting in more and more fragments, until the debris eventually renders low-Earth orbit impassable.

This past September, Kessler chaired a 2011 National Research Council committee that produced the report, "Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs."

As for who is in charge of cleanup duty, Kessler observes: "It will require international cooperation to address this problem because it is a global phenomenon. It's up to the international community to address the issue. Not just the United States."

Kessler believes the new film can help persuade the public and world leaders alike as to the growing threat the space junk presents.

"I feel like we suffer from such a lack of understanding of what the real issues are, and what we need to do in order to solve those issues," Kessler says. "And I think we get the false impression that if we put these things off and wait until we have more money or are more capable of doing it...that there's justification for that. Understanding the issues of orbital debris now—today--will make it possible for solving the problems before they get any worse."

'Space Junk': a plea to clean up space posted at YouTube by saythis2me

As for the film's greater purpose, director Melissa Butts tells David she hopes audiences come away realizing "that there are consequences to our actions. On the flip side of that, where there is a will, there is a way. We haven't quite figured out how we're going to clean it up yet, but I believe--and the film says this pretty clearly--there is a will to make it better. I expect that young people watching this film in various parts of the world will be integral to finding a long-term solution."

The 38-minute film is available in both 3D and 2D, for giant screen and digital theaters.

To check theater showings, as well as gain access to other resources such as a K-12 Educator's Guide to orbital debris, visit the Space Junk 3D website.


Quick Q&A with Space Junk 3D Director Melissa Butts

buttsHow did the idea for Space Junk 3D originate?

The producer and managing partner of Melrae Pictures, Kim Rowe, put a magazine article on my desk and said this would make a great giant screen film! She was right!

It seems all of sudden satellites are dropping from the sky. Why now?

What’s really come home for me is that space faring nations have been launching satellites into space for 50 years now with little plans to de-orbit them. Thousands have been launched and only about a 1000 are operational. Time has caught up to us and we are now seeing the consequences of those actions--couple that with how deeply dependent we are on space. Most people aren’t aware or don’t think about all the technology that is afforded to us because of satellites in space--satellite TV, cell phones, weather, military communications and the list goes on.

The film offers some interesting solutions to space junk, particularly the recycling center in space. Which do you feel is viable and could realistically be implemented?

In the late 1970s two predictions came out of NASA, one called what is now referred to as the Kessler Syndrome, which this film is about and features Don Kessler, a retired NASA scientist who predicted that in 30 years we would be reaching a tipping point of orbital debris in space; the other was a self sufficient city in space called the Torus Space Colony.  It was to be a giant wheelhouse powered by solar energy and mining resources in space. It was predicted to be built in the year 2000. Two predictions--one came true, the other did not, but it’s not to say it couldn’t happen. It’s just a matter of time and resources. 

NASA has said it needs to remove five tons of space junk a year for the next 100 years starting by 2020. Currently there are no viable solutions. Solutions are just on the drawing board now.

A large portion of the film contains digital animation. Can you tell us a little about how it was achieved?

I have to give credit to Luke Ployhar of Afterglow Studios. He did a remarkable job, because not only is the animation in the film beautiful—it’s awesome 3D. We used animated and fixed rigs and we rendered separate layers, which gave us lots of control in both composition and the stereo effect. We also rendered in 4K, which is a must for the Giant Screen. We also previsualized some of our shots with Mark Coleran—he’s created a lot of great looks for Hollywood features such as The Bourne Identity. He’s amazing and I think gives a look that will surprise a lot of Giant Screen audiences.

Your previous film, 3D Sun, also dealt with space. What is it about this topic that continues to keep your interest?

I think the real question is why films for science museums? Especially since I was an average student in science class and didn’t pursue it after high school. People are fascinating to me and careers in space science are often not celebrated. I guess this is my way of giving back, bringing those characters to a larger than life appeal.
(posted at Big Movie Zone Blog)

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