Battlestar Galactica Finale Goofs

March 23, 2009 11:47 by scibuff

There are a few minor spoilers below but nothing that would reveal the big picture or make much sense without actually seeing the show’s conclusion.

Undoubtedly, the last Friday brought the finale of one of the best sci-fi shows on TV. Battlestar Galactica (BSG) had a great run of four full seasons. Since the finale aired on Syfy channel last Friday many bloggers posted their comments and criticism about the final revelations. I will refrain from commenting on the actually story and rather focus on some easily noticeable mistakes the show creators made. On a side note, I recommend to click on the images below to see them in higher quality.

In modern astronomy, constellations present a method of dividing the sky into (88) areas with precise boundaries. Nevertheless, it is more common to regard constellations as groups of stars resembling recognizable patterns – asterisms. Throughout centuries stars seem to maintain the same position and apparent distances with respect to each other. Nonetheless, long-term observation reveal that the constellations change shape as stars exhibit independent motion, albeit very slow. The constellations in the presence appear roughly the same as the ancient Egyptians would have observe them. Nonetheless, if we went much further back into the past, we would have hard time recognizing asterisms with which we are so familiar today.

At the beginning of the finale (at around 9:00) after Adama spits the contents of his drinks onto his suit, there is a cut back to the fleet. At that moment, anyone slightly familiar with the night sky will immediately recognize the stars of Orion. All prominent stars, apart from Rigel (? Ori) obscured by Galactica, are visible. Easily identifiable are stars from the main quadrangle: Betelgeuse (? Ori), Bellatrix (? Ori), Saiph (? Ori), the stars of the Orion’s belt: Alnitak(? Ori), Alnilam(? Ori), Mintaka(? Ori), and the Orion Nebula (M42).

The Constellation of Orion as seen on BSG - Source: Sci-Fi HD

The Constellation of Orion as seen on BSG - Source: Sci-Fi HD

The proper motion of the Orion stars over the period of 300,000 years. The animation stars in 150,000 BCE and progresses in 50,000 years increments to 150,000 ACE

The proper motion of the Orion stars over the period of 300,000 years. The animation stars in 150,000 BCE and progresses in 50,000 years increments to 150,000 ACE

Unlike most other constellations the stars in the Orion exhibit a small relative motion (as observed from the Earth). The asterism formed more than a million years ago and will remain observable for another million or two into the future. At the time the screen shot above was taken the fleet was nowhere close to Earth but there might be a possible explanation of Orion’s appearance here. With the exception of ? Ori (Bellatrix) at the distance of 240 light years (ly), the rest of the main Orion stars are distanced between 600 and 1300ly away from the Earth. Hence, there might have been a place within a few tens of light years of Earth where a pattern resembling Orion could have been seen in the past. Furthermore, there is evidence that the show creators were aware of stellar drift, as officers mentioned several times the necessity to periodically recompute the jump coordinates. I’m willing to give the show “scientist” the benefit of the doubt, despite Occam’s Razor.

Earth rises above the Moon surface as seen on BSG - Source: Sci-Fi HD

Earth rises above the Moon surface as seen on BSG - Source: Sci-Fi HD

A few seconds before the Earth comes into the camera view, Galactica “flies” over the moon. When the Earth rises, it is apparent that an observer on the planet would see the new moon lunar phase. Hence, Galactica must have come from the far side of the moon and flown directly above the north pole. However, the surface morphology observed on screen does not correspond to features shown in maps of Moon’s far side.

Furthermore, the Earth in the image has virtually cloudless atmosphere and looks as if cut directly out of the Universal Movies intro. Even worse, Earth’s terminator reaches too close to the equator. Even if the fleet arrived at the time of summer solstice, the shadow cannot reach past the Antarctic Circle, which reaches just a few kilometres north of the coast of Antarctica at the longitudes around the southern tip of Africa. In any case, judging by Earth’s tilt and the surface illumination, the time should be close to the autumnal equinox (How do I know this?).

The next image reveals the most easily recognizable mistake. As we learn in the last moments of the show, the fleet arrived at Earth 150,000 years in the past. It was mentioned earlier how stellar drift shapes the face of constellations over time. The stars which give Orion the easily recognizable shape have relatively small proper motion relative to the Sun. Nevertheless, the situation is quite different in the case of the brightest stars in Ursa Major (forming the famous Big Dipper).

The Constellation of Ursa Major as seen on BSG - Source: Sci-Fi HD

The Constellation of Ursa Major as seen on BSG - Source: Sci-Fi HD

The image above was captured a few seconds after the fleet arrived above Africa, roughly at 59:50. It clearly shows the Big Dipper and a more trained eye can easily spot other stars forming the Ursa Major constellation. The problem is that 150,000 years ago, this constellation looked very different and hardly anyone would be able to identify it in the night sky. The actual position of stars forming the Big Dipper is displayed below.

The Big Dipper as seens from Earth in 150,000 BCE

The Big Dipper as seens from Earth in 150,000 BCE

Of course, stars in any given constellation are unlikely to be physically related. Surprisingly enough most stars visible in this region of the sky seem to be connected. Their measured common motion suggests that they all belong to a open star cluster approximately 75 ly away. The cluster is more properly known as the Ursa Major Moving Group.

The proper motion of the Big Dipper stars over the period of 300,000 years. The animation stars in 150,000 BCE and progresses in 50,000 years increments to 150,000 ACE.

The proper motion of the Big Dipper stars over the period of 300,000 years. The animation stars in 150,000 BCE and progresses in 50,000 years increments to 150,000 ACE.

The last goof I noticed could have easily been prevented by asking a somewhat knowledgeable person a simple question. Instead, the writer went for a phrase which would deliver the biggest awe. It kind of reminds me of the mistake George Lucas made by confusing the parsec (pc) for a unit of time (“Kessel run in 12 parsecs”)

Adama: “How’s that possible? Human beings naturally evolved on a planet one million light years away. The odds against that are …”

Baltar: “Astronomical, yeah.”

The Milky Way has the diameter of approximately 100,000 ly. Thus, if it were true that the planet on which the fleet landed was a million light years away, the original 12 colonies could not have been in our galaxy. It gets even worse. As far as we know (and we know quite a lot about the neighborhood of Milky Way) there is no good candidate for a place where New Caprica could have been. There are two dwarf galaxies close to the 1 million light years (Mly) marker. Leo I is a dwarf galaxy at around 0.8 Mly and the Phoenix Dwarf galaxy at around 1.3 Mly. Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that the BSG universe is limited to Milky Way as there are (weirdly enough) references to constellations seen from the Earth, and we have not heard a word of intergalactic travel capabilities.

Finally on a slightly different note. I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or glad about how the series ended. On one hand, I found the “God always has a plan” notion really annoying ever since the Pythia’s prophecy began to play a significant role in the show’s development. The idea of a omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent being “playing the dice” sending agents into people’s head to deliver message for him, or bringing people back from death goes against rational thinking of any sort. On the other hand, Moore’s portrayal how ridiculous irrational and superstitious beliefs are and how they ruin lives, regardless of whether or not that was his ultimate intention, is a good lesson that the viewers should take from the show.

* How did I conclude that the fleet arrives around the time of autumnal equinox? First of all, it is apparent from the illumination of Earth’s surface that the sun is positioned directly behind (the Moon is in the new moon phase). Hence, taking into consideration the axial tilt and the direction of Earth’s motion around the sun (see the image below), the conclusion follows.
Earth's position around the Sun through the year

Earth's position around the Sun through the year