Nope, the excellent third film from Jordan Peele, raises many questions and even leaves a few unanswered. There’s one in particular I’m still thinking about. Don’t worry though, there’s no spoilers here. I’ve had this question since seeing the final trailer! Once you’ve seen the film, we’ve got plenty more coverage in a deep dive into the lingering questions of Nope. (Editor’s note: this moment is definitely in the trailer for the movie, as such does not count as a spoiler. Take it up with Universal.)
Let’s get into it. Could a nickel falling from a UFO kill a person? MythBusters covered a version of this question way back in season one. They firmly busted the myth that a penny tossed from the Empire State Building could embed in the sidewalk or kill a pedestrian below. And we can apply their results to our UFO. Because it’s a product of terminal velocity, the height isn’t much of a factor. Whether it’s falling from the Empire State Building or a UFO doesn’t matter. But there are some variables that do.
Terminal velocity is the maximum speed an object can reach, where the increasing speed and drag force cancel each other out. It is determined by many things. Mass is relevant and a nickel weighs five grams. That’s twice as much as a penny so it would be traveling faster. It’s also slightly larger and the area is part of the equation as well. As is acceleration due to gravity and the density of what the object is falling through (air, in this case).
The MythBusters math determined the terminal velocity of a penny to be 64 miles per hour. They made a gun to fire a penny at that speed into concrete, asphalt, and ballistics gel with a skull inside to simulate a human head. When that failed to do anything more than slightly chip or dent the surfaces, they fired the coin at speeds closer to 2,000 mph, which is about the speed of a bullet. It still never penetrated the “skin” or harder surfaces. This covers the contingency if the UFO in Nope is firing these objects at high speed rather than just dropping them.
Does it matter where the coin hits a person? In Nope, it appears to enter right through the eye. Horrifying, but is it actually more fragile than other places? Our eyes are made up of dense connective tissue so while a projectile is certainly likely to cause trauma, it’s not an automatic way into our skulls. There’s also bone in the back of our eye sockets that it would have to make it through.
These questions are also relevant when it comes to the key embedded in a horse’s thigh in Nope. Studies have shown that horse’s skin is similar to humans so the impact would likely have the same effect. But would the jagged edge of a key make a difference versus a coin’s round one? MythBusters didn’t cover that aspect. But they did find that updrafts around the New York City skyscrapers and various other circumstances could keep the penny from ever even reaching terminal velocity, in which case it would be traveling slower. That seems likely enough outside the city as well.
So does debunking this urban legend mean the scene from Nope is impossible? Not necessarily. Strange weather could create down drafts or other phenomena that increase the acceleration past gravity’s pull. Wind speed in tornados and other storms can hit 300 miles per hour. But again, if a penny isn’t fatal at 2,000 mph, a nickel isn’t likely to be at high speed either. Especially since the movie shows it falling more like hail.
There is obviously a point where the size of the falling object is a threat to humans. Horrifying, a phenomenon known as blue ice occurs when airplane toilets leak. Frozen human waste can injure or kill people when it falls from the sky in large enough chunks. So while your risk of being killed by falling poop is extremely low, it’s not zero.
As you can see, many factors go into this question. And since it’s a science fiction movie, anything is technically possible if the storytellers want it to be. But in this reality, the short answer to whether a nickel falling from the sky could kill you is a simple “Nope.”
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.