Slingshots in space

Astronaut Don Pettit is a national treasure—a skilled explainer of science who has taken time out of his many trips into space to make engaging, educational videos for a general audience.

In this video from the International Space Station, Pettit talks about physics in space, using Angry Birds as a model. If you've played the very Earth-based game, you've probably noticed that, when you launch a bird, it moves in an arched trajectory. In space, without the aid of gravity, that's not the case. Slingshot a bird in one direction, and it will just keep going on that direction.

Appealingly, Pettit demonstrates this by, yes, slingshotting a stuffed bird through a Space Station hallway.

Via Virginia Wotring

Video Link


  1. I enjoyed his floating around and firing off angry bird, but I’m not exactly sure what he was explaining.

  2. Videos like this are a slap in the face reminder of how amazing the world and time we live in really is, and how much of this amazingness is taken for granted on a day to day basis. (Louis CK has a great bit about this phenomenon.) I’m so jealous of this guy, that he’s up in a frikin space station tumbling around, doing science, in ur base, killing all ur doods. And I love the casual confident certainty he has about “when we will go to Mars.” I hope I live to see that.

  3. Well, to be accurate, the actual trajectory of the bird relative to the earth as the space station is traveling during this experiment is curved.  With the relative velocity of 17500 mph or 5 miles per second, a slight curve is traced with the flight of about a second or two for about ten miles (!) traveled by the angry bird in space.  The shape of that curve while slight is a curve.  So science prevails.  Learn your lessons well future space travellers.

    1. What’s your reference frame?  I’m assuming the astronaut is either using the ISS, or perhaps an elevator in free fall.

      1. I see.  The reference point for this observation would be the bird in flight, relative to earth.  This is in correllation with a comparison with the illustrated animation of the angry birds in space as they tumble in curved trajectories around gravitational objects in the game.  Analagous to this,  the experiment seems to demonstrate linear travel; but more specifically, as you suggest, with relevance to reference, the travel is quite curved.  The idea of relevant reference is a deep one and can be carried to Nth degree. My comments compare gameplayer’s view point to the travel of the bird on the space station  if simalarly viewed by an observer in space.
        This would be moot if the game were viewed in First Person where the travel would be forward and onward.   Per adua at astra

        1. Gotcha, I was thinking from the point of view of the shuttle.  For some reason I didn’t make the Angry Birds connection.  But now that I think about it a Bird launched from an orbiting space station could be a fun power up.

  4. Does zero-g have an effect on the human voice?  I am not trying to be a smartass. I’m genuinely curious.  Anyone know?

      1. It sure changes my voice when I talk while in a headstand, but there are more variables in play than just orientation.

    1.  It may or may not, I dunno.   Maybe, since the artificial atmosphere of the Space Station (from what I’ve read) isn’t an exact match to Earth’s atmosphere,  sound waves travel though it differently…like they do when you inhale helium?
      Other than that, I think the combination of his attempted baby-talk and the “nervous science-y person on camera” effect contributed to the strangeness of his cadence.  I got used to it quickly though, and I’m sure if I had played Angry Birds even once in my life, I’d have understood this whole video a lot better.

      1. In my case, you can just remove “in a freefall environment” and the statement still stands.

  5. Doesn’t it just gall ya to realize that the U.S.o.A [cue the Sousa march] can’t get people to and from the International Space Station no mo’?  (so they can even make educational vids like these)  …it sure does me  -sigh-.   (“no! i’d rather we concentrated on improving education here on this planet than waste our tax money on sending guys to play in space!”  ok… well, good luck with teaching kids with no great dreams or visions with the “tax money” you can wrest from the military industrial complex)

  6. I love that NASA is doing a program like this for kids. That said, someone needs to get that man some decent socks. He’s a pair of sandals away from being Jim’s dad from American Pie.

  7. Yay for Don Petitt!!!! I always absolutely love watching his videos. If I can’t go to space, at least I can watch his great videos and… well… yeah… doesn’t quite make up for the “not going to space” part (I’m still hoping, though… say, when was that space elevator coming?), but I’m really glad that the people that are up there seem to be really great people!
    And a shout out to Angry Birds and Rovio! I watched the video while squeling with glee when it came out! Don Petitt and Angry Birds, what an absolutely pure win combination right there!!!!!

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