How Close Is This Star Trek Tech?
The second installment of director J.J. Abrams' franchise reboot, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is good, pulpy space adventure fun -- light on coherence maybe, but packed with familiar sci-fi elements and some new twists on classic Star Trek technology and mythology.
In a recent feature, we took a look at the real science behind the U.S.S. Enterprise and its famous warp drive. Other aspects of Star Trek tech also get a makeover in the new film. Here we take a look at gadgets from the film, and whether there are real-world analogues and or if they're just Starfleet pseudo-science.
Fiction: Star Trek's phaser weapons represent a variation on the laser blasters of Golden Age science fiction, which were really just Westerns transposed to the new frontier of outer space. In previous Star Trek incarnations, phasers fired beams of energy that could be set to stun, kill or disintegrate. In the reboot universe of the new films, phasers -- both handheld and starship-mounted -- fire bolts instead of beams. It's an aesthetic concern. The ship battles and gunfights looks much cooler with energy bolts.
Science: Star Trek's phasers are basically particle beam weapons, a subtype of directed-energy weapons (DEW) that also include laser, sonic and microwave weapons. Perhaps the closest thing we have now to a stun phaser is the non-lethal Active Denial System (ADS) technology, a military weapons system that directs microwaves to incapacitate targets by heating the surface of the skin.
Fiction: About halfway though "Star Trek Into Darkness," that old chestnut the photon torpedo becomes an important plot point as Captain Kirk and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy decide to take a look at what exactly is inside those things. The film also introduces a new, experimental and unauthorized photon torpedo that may or may not conform to Starfleet regulations.
Science: Unlike the directed-energy weaponry of phasers, photon torpedos are ballistic weapons designed to deliver a warhead of antimatter material. While scientists have indeed produced antimatter in laboratories, antimatter weapons are strictly hypothetical at this point.
Fiction: Another venerable science-fiction standby, the force field, makes a couple of different appearances in the film. As usual, Enterprise officers bark "Shields up!" with alarming regularity, engaging the ship's defensive energy deflectors. There's also an intriguing scene in which a Starfleet prisoner is kept in a jail cell with no bars -- just an invisible force field that can be conveniently adjusted to allow important plot devices to pass through.
Science: The Earth's magnetic field is, in essence, a giant force field, deflecting charged particles from the Sun which would otherwise fizzle the ozone layer, destroy the atmosphere, and end life as we know it. Good force field, that. Researchers are currently exploring potential plasma-based force fields to protect spacecraft in orbit.
A composite of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, taken by the Voyager I space probe. Io (upper right) is closest to Jupiter, followed by Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (lower left). Corbis
Fiction: In the new Star Trek film, the U.S.S. Enterprise's excitable chief engineer Scotty is dispatched to a secret military base on one of Jupiter's moons. There he discovers some disturbing developments that will later spell trouble for Starfleet Command. In Star Trek mythology, space travel within our own solar system travel is a breeze and Scotty's trip is depicted as a mere walk down the road.
Science: If we were to establish lunar waystations within the solar system, Jupiter would be the place to set up shop. The planet has more than 60 moons, with the four Galilean moons -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- being among the biggest objects in the solar system. (Ganymede has a larger diameter than Mercury.) The Jovian moons are actually among the best potential spots for space colonization, thanks to the presence of workable atmospheres and magnetospheres to deflect radiation.
Fiction: When the original Star Trek TV series debuted in 1966, the handheld Starfleet communicators were the stuff of pure and heady science fiction. A wireless telephone, in the palm of your hand? Prespoterous! In the latest film, communicators are largely unchanged, although they do use the pseudo-scientific "subspace frequency" to link with away teams while the Enterprise is in orbit or parked behind a nearby asteroid.
Science: Interestingly, the communicator is perhaps the one area of Star Trek mythology in which reality has outgunned fiction. At the advance screening I attended, there were actually giggles when Captain Kirk snapped open his clamshell comm unit. A flip phone? What is this, Stardate 1996? As for orbital communications, the International Space Station uses an internal digital wireless network to connect astronauts in separate modules. We've even managed to put mobile phone satellites into orbit. Starfleet may have the competitive edge with warp cores and dilithium crystals, but we've still got the cooler smartphones.