Strip Mining 'Avatar's' Planet Paradise

The fantasy animated movie "Avatar" is set in the Alpha Centauri system, a real solar system that is nearly 4.4 light-years away from earth.
The fantasy animated movie "Avatar" is set in the Alpha Centauri system, a real solar system that is nearly 4.4 light-years away from earth. (Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

It's 150 years into the future, and Homosapiens have managed to eradicate all of Earth's native flora and fauna. Butfor some reason the nature-free lifestyle of our great-grandkids still requiresthat we import "unobtainium," a mineral of unspecified applicationthat's worth $20 million a kilogram. Even crack isn't that pricey.

Obtaining unobtainium is the motive powerbehind "Avatar,"the James Cameron movie that's broken all records for production costs,requiring upwards of a half-billion dollars, or the same as constructing theEmpire State Building (after adjusting for inflation). In the film, Earthlingsof the future have set up a mining operation on the jungly, predator-infestedmoon, Pandora, to extract this costly material and send it back to Earth. Thatsounds like just a bit of innocuous economic activity, but Pandora's locals(the Na'vi), who look a lot like willowy half-dressed fashion models sportingstripes and a blue hue, are not copacetic about having an extractive industryon their home turf. Trouble ensues.

Everyone raves about "Avatar's"visuals, although the film's story line has taken some lumps in the press ?it's often described as "Dances with Wolves" meets Pocahontas(Britain's Daily Mail dubbed it "Dancing with Smurfs"). The scale andproduction values of "Avatar" also raise various, and interestingancillary issues. For example, are movie actors destined to endlessly emote infront of blue screens, suited up with motion-capture reflectors? Are realpeople too limited to actually appear in films?

And then there's the question ? which seemsto resurface every half-century ? of whether movies and television are finallygoing to switch everyday production to 3-D? I'm a big fan of this technology,and as a kid persuaded the Polaroid Corporation to send me some sheets ofpolarizing material so I could make and project 3-D photos. But honestly, Ifind that I'd much prefer that stories have imaginative rather than spatialdepth, and 3-D filmcan become a distraction both for the producer and the viewer. Processing thatstereo information requires effort on the part of both your corneas and yourcerebellum.

But to the point: Since JamesCameron is besotted with space science, it's always interesting to seewhether he gets it right in his films. His previous blockbuster,"Titanic," was meticulous ? some would say obsessive ? abouthistorical detail. "Avatar" is less attentive to accuracy ? or atleast, plausibility. One could easily bemoan the fact that the turquoise nativesare remarkably anthropomorphic, or that the atmosphere clearly has oxygen (youcan set fires), but is nonetheless strangely toxic to humans.

Also puzzling are the lovely skyscapes,showing Pandora'shome planet (a doppelganger for Jupiter) and at least three other moons,hanging around together like an urban gang. Cameron hasn't studied orbitaldynamics, clearly, for otherwise he'd know that moons don't cotton to suchclose companionship.

Then there's the idea of an entire societyliving in a tree ? seemingly peaceable, laid-back, and adept at riding big,bird-like lizards. (What is in that atmosphere, anyway, that it can supportflying creatures the size of a convenience store?) Yet, despite their pastoralways, the Na'vi, armed only with bows and arrows and an occasional herd ofhammer-head hippos, can deploy like Special Forces, and engage with Marines ofthe 22nd century. Seems modestly implausible.

Perennially wrong

As I said, I could go on. But my critics willaccuse me of nitpicking, and really ? since I greatly liked the film ? is thereany point to saying that a fictional story is, well, fictional?

Maybe not, but I do want to note somethingabout the premise, because Tinseltown has used the idea of interstellar miningover and over. Simply put: Is there some naturally occurring element orcompound that would really be worth hauling back to Earth from another starsystem?

This question was addressed two centuriesago, when England began to send people (mostly low-grade criminals) toAustralia. This population needed something to export to London to earn foreigncurrency, and they settled on wool. This was not because the Aussies areparticularly fond of sheep (although New Zealanders have plenty of jokes aboutthat), but only because wool is very expensive per pound. Sending it back toEurope was expensive, and Australian wool would only be competitive in theLondon markets if the shipping costs were a small fraction of the productvalue. Even in the day of wooden ships, this criterion was met.

Now let's consider the tariff for sending akilo of unobtainium back to Earth. Our descendents in this film have somepretty nifty looking rockets, and we hear shortly after the opening titles thatthe trip to Pandora takes only about five years (as measured on-board). Well,even the nearest other star system, Proxima Centauri, is 4.3 light-years fromwhere you're sitting. That means that transport between Earth and Pandoraoccurs at 85% the speed of light or more!

Getting a kilogram of unobtainium (oranything else) up to that speed, and then decelerating it at the end of theride, takes at least 1017 joules of energy. That's freshman physics.What's the cost of that energy? Our cheapest joules are supplied by your localutility company at about ten cents a kilowatt hour, or 36 million joules perdollar. At that rate, the price of shipping a kilo of unobtainium works out to$3 billion, or ? assuming  2% annual inflation between now and 150 yearsfrom now ? $50 billion in 2154 c.e. dollars (that's the year in which the filmtakes place).

In other words, the transport costs forunobtainium exceed the value of the merchandise by a factor of more than 2,500!

So that settles that. You are not about topay $60,000 to Amazon as the shipping charge for this month's best seller.Interstellar mining ? and the affront to natives it might imply ? should betactfully removed from Hollywood's box of tropes.

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Seth Shostak
Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

Seth Shostak is an astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, who places a high priority on communicating science to the public. In addition to his many academic papers, Seth has published hundreds of popular science articles, and not just for; he makes regular contributions to NBC News MACH, for example. Seth has also co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology and written three popular science books on SETI, including "Confessions of an Alien Hunter" (National Geographic, 2009). In addition, Seth ahosts the SETI Institute's weekly radio show, "Big Picture Science."