The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The Day The Earth Stood Still
If anyone in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri wants to see the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, they’ll have to come to Earth. (credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Klaatu barada stinko

The publicity campaign for the 20th Century Fox release of the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still on December 12 involved a particularly space-related publicity stunt. Even more ambitious than the movie, the press release for the stunt implied that they would make all the planets “stand still”.

It was a bogus stunt, however, altogether fitting for a movie that quickly engendered such mocking media reviews as “Klaatu barada stinko.” Just how bad the stunt was is worth examining as a measure of the publicity department’s assessment of the level of knowledge and intelligence in its target audience.

Attention-grabbing and thought-provoking publicity stunts are as American as apple pie and selling senatorial appointments, but the public should at least require the stunts be authentic: that is, the guy really does try to jump the shark, rather than special effects with only a painted backdrop and a mechanical monster.

Attention-grabbing and thought-provoking publicity stunts are as American as apple pie and selling senatorial appointments, but the public should at least require the stunts be authentic.

This “stunt” fails the basics: the backyard antenna couldn’t possibly get a signal to Alpha Centauri since the star rarely edges above the due southern horizon in mid-Florida, and didn’t do so at all at the announced transmission interval. Saying the antenna was “on Cape Canaveral” allowed the easy misinterpretation it was some giant NASA dish, not the equivalent of a WW2-surplus radar scanner.

The rest of the press release was full of astro-gobbledegook that provided a bogus schedule of the signal passing a series of planets outbound—all assuming that the planets were standing in a line directly aimed at the star (hint: they’re not, and never will be).

The press release was typically grandiose in its claims: “In a time when global movie launches are now commonplace, Fox is raising the bar by spearheading, with Deep Space Communications Network located at Cape Canaveral, the ultimate in ‘wide release’ platforms.” They’re calling it “the world’s first galactic motion picture release.”

“We are thrilled about beaming this film into space. This will be our first full length movie transmission. And what could be more relevant to send into Deep Space than a movie about the Earth’s acceptance of visitors from outer space,” commented Jim Lewis, Managing Director of the Deep Space Communications Network.

In the New York Times, science writer Dennis Overbye reported the claim straight. “The movie will be broadcast in real time,” he wrote, “starting at noon on Friday, by Deep Space Communications Network, a Florida company that has beamed whale songs and the Craigslist Web site, among other things, into space in the three years of its existence. According to its Web site, the company will transmit a five-minute signal into space for anyone for $299.”

“The movie will be beamed in the direction of Alpha Centauri, a triple star system about four light-years from here,” explained Overbye. “That means it will take four years for it to get to Alpha Centauri. (There is plenty of time to get popcorn, whoever you are.) The reviews will take longer to come back, if they ever do…”

The press release called the transmission “the world’s first galactic motion picture release.”

As a first reality check, despite the description of the antenna being “on Cape Canaveral”, the team is not related to NASA. The press release does state that the radio group, the “Deep Space Communications Network”, is a “private” organization with only a five-meter dish antenna. But its home page brags about how close it is to Cape Canaveral, and its very title implies it has capabilities such as “deep space communications” when that’s questionable. It turns out they define “deep space” as “beyond the highest satellites” (that is, perhaps 160,000 kilometers or so), which is still well short of the Moon.

NASA’s “Deep Space Network” (DSN) centered at Goldstone, California, has been communicating with space probes for fifty years. It has antennas up to 70 meters in diameter, but none of them are anywhere near Cape Canaveral.

The standard transmission power of the private group is 500 watts. Their general certificate indicates that signal strength and specified the transmission frequency of 5965 MHz.

Such a signal would likely be drowned out in background static far short of any other star, and possibly far short of even the outer planets in our solar system. However, that largely depends on how big a receiving antenna is waiting for it.

There’s a bigger problem, and it’s with the announced target, Alpha Centauri. I sent Overbye an email as soon as I’d seen his article:

“Dennis, you’ve been suckered,” I warned. “A dish antenna CAN’T send a message ‘in the direction of Alpha Centauri’ from Florida at noon today without pointing through solid rock. The star is at 61 deg south declination, meaning that for anyone at 29 deg or further north, the star never rises above the horizon. Cape Canaveral is at 28 1/2 deg north, so in the best case, the star peeks above the horizon a half-degree for a short time each day. It’s at nowhere near noon. The pages of the NY Times have been used to promote a bogus stunt.” Overbye replied he’d check it out with Warren Betts, who was conducting the promotion campaign with ZoomWerks Media.

His original response was to question my knowledge and my motives. “If this person questioning is from the northern hemisphere,” he wrote, paraphrasing a claim another expert had given him, “you’d be surprised that many of them (even astronomers) are not often aware that Alpha Centauri is visible from southern Florida.” Betts added the possibility that I was “just confused or needing attention.”

At the specified transmission time, noon, Alpha Centauri has already set. It’s then about six degrees below the horizon.

“I have never received so many answers from radio astronomers,” Betts also wrote. “But yes, Alpha Centauri is visible from Cape Canaveral southward. In fact, other than Hawaii, this would be the only place this star system is visible from the U.S. And, as explained by The Planetary Society, who also works on many SETI type projects, radio waves when beamed outward smear across the horizon as they travel out and the Earth rotates. And, as Deep Space said, the further out the waves travel the wider they become, meaning the window of opportunity for intercepting one becomes wider and wider (though the signal grows weaker).”

In my reply to Overbye, I advised him to check it out himself on enter the location from database, as “Cape Canaveral”, and set the “whole sky” display to 0930 local time December 12. Also select B&W. The result: Alpha Centauri is right on the due south horizon.

But that’s at sea, with a spherical uniform geoid. At Cape Canaveral or anywhere on land, you’d expect to have one to two degrees of structures and topographic features on all the land-side horizons. If there’s a building across the street, it’s even more.

Even worse, at the specified transmission time, noon, Alpha Centauri has already set. It’s then about six degrees below the horizon. Two hours later, when the transmission was more-or-less over, it’s on the order of 15 degrees below the horizon.

Overbye relayed the comment to Betts, who to his credit took further efforts to verify things. He replied, in a much more subdued and agreeable tone.

“Being an astronomy enthusiast, I wanted Seth Shostak to please get any and all information possible about Alpha Centauri being able to receive this transmission,” he wrote. “He thinks unlikely now because when he checked with Jim Wilson at the Deep Space Comm Network Jim’s coordinates and direction of the dish would have put the beam too close to the ground, causing interference. Even if Alpha Centauri is visible.”

“Now, I wish they had informed me of this issue from the start. But I’m alerting press in case they want to make a correction or addition. Thankfully this only went online with most outlets because we did it on such a fast turn around.”

“[Shostak] did a lot of research today about this due to my nagging,” he concluded. “So Oberg is likely correct! Sorry for this bit of confusion.”

There was more than just a “bit” of confusion. Somebody in the office also generated a neat-looking table of the other planets in the Solar System and gave the time it would take the program signal to reach each of them. This was generated, of course, absent the realization the signal was being sent in a narrow beam, at most a few degrees across, and far out of the ecliptic plane.

The table is total garbage. I analyze it in the appendix below, but the summary is this: it does not show the actual positions (and ranges) of the planets in their current orbits around the Sun, it shows the “idealized” range when—and only when—each planet is at its average distance from the Sun and all of them are lined up in one direction—which never happens. Thus the given signal times are fictional.

Lastly, the technology of interstellar radio communications has been pretty thoroughly analyzed, especially from the question of what might an alien civilization be able to decipher from Earth’s television transmissions and other radio signals. Specialists in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) are doubtful that even powerful transmissions from television stations would be decodable at interstellar distances. The SETI League explains this in detail; there’s also a more humorous treatment of this Hollywood misunderstanding.

Bottom line: the Twentieth Century Fox press release about aliens viewing their film someday is silly glitz misusing space-age jargon.

The are different strategies for initiating deliberate interstellar radio exchanges, which are discussed in a Universe Today article. And Seth Shostak, an expert at the SETI Institute, wrote about how much information any readable interstellar transmission could realistically expect to be carrying.

Bottom line: the Twentieth Century Fox press release about aliens viewing their film someday is silly glitz misusing space-age jargon. But considering the overwhelming tone of the reviews coming in these days, the desire for a target audience on a different planet could be understandable.

Jim Lewis, the transmission service director, later commented on how the galaxy should be exposed to all of Earth’s culture, not just the best [a back-handed slap at the film, for sure]. “I have now seen the film as we have just completed sending it into Deep Space today,” he said in a prepared statement. “There has been much debate over what should be sent into space. Some say we should send only the best of earth like Bach or Van Gogh, but wouldn’t that be unrealistic or even perhaps like bragging? No, I think this film as did the original gives a fair representation of how our Earth may respond to Aliens from another planet.”

Maybe, maybe not. By the film’s own standards, however, bad astronomy makes bad art. “It’s very important for science fiction to respect science if it’s going to work,” says Scott Derrickson, the film’s director. “We really decided that when people see the film, there has to be a real attempt to give the science some validity,” he added. Oh? Where’s Gort when we need him?


The original press release contained this passage:

Prior to its arrival at Alpha Centauri, the transmission of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL can be intercepted and viewed at various points in our own solar system (Distance from Earth – at the speed of light – and transmission time, as follows):

Moon: 0.000 000 038, 1.1991888 seconds

Sun: 0.000 016, 8.41536 minutes

Mercury: 0.000 009 5, 4.99662 minutes

Venus: 0.000 004 76, 2.5035696 minutes

Mars: 0.000 007 6, 3.997296 minutes

Jupiter: 0.000 066 6, 35.028936 minutes

Saturn: 0.000 135, 1.18341 hours

Uranus: 0.000 285, 2.49831 hours

Neptune: 0.000 46, 4.03236 hours

Pluto: 0.000 618 3, 5.4200178 hours

This is silly. The chart (which for unknown reasons uses a distance unit of 1013 (10,000,000,000,000) kilometers) has the distances calculated as if all the planets were lined up along one radius out from the Sun. Actually, the planets are deployed along their elliptical orbits at various angles from the Sun-Earth line, not directly along it.

You can see this by visiting Heavens-Above and asking for planet positions. You find this chart:

PlanetDistance (in AU) fromSpeed (km/s)
Neptune 30.0330.475.44

AU = Astronomical Unit, the Earth’s average distance from the Sun

The obvious difference between reality and the press release is that, for example, Mercury is now on the far side of the Sun, and so is 1.4 times as far from Earth as the Sun is—not closer, as the press release falsely states. Mars is not now one-tenth the distance to Jupiter (as it would be if they were both directly outwards from Earth), but is barely less than half as far away as Jupiter because, these days, it’s also on the opposite side of the Sun as viewed from Earth.