Star Trek: Science Fact or Science Fiction?

By Matthew Allen

Space: the final frontier. This is a science blog about the starship Enterprise. Its mission, to determine whether the science in Star Trek is science fact, or science fiction. To boldly go where no blog has gone before!

Captain Kirk and Mr Spock (By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40154021)

Whether you’re a fan of the original series, an admirer of Jean-Luc Picard or a sucker for the incredible action sequences in the latest J J Abrams reboot films, we can all agree that Star Trek is amazing! It has inspired generations of children and adults to learn more about science and astrophysics. But, have you ever wondered about some of the science in the show? How does the Enterprise travel at warp speed? What exactly is a photon torpedo? Well, wonder no longer, because we’re going to take a look at some of the science behind Star Trek!

 

“To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations…”

The NASA Kepler spaceraft, which searches for new planets. (By NASA/JPL-Caltech/Wendy Stenzel - http://kepler.nasa.gov/multimedia/artwork/artistsconcepts/?ImageID=23 (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36700663)

The NASA Kepler spacecraft, which searches for new planets. (Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech/Wendy Stenzel – Public Domain.

These are the famous words that describe the mission of the Star Trek Enterprise. Strange worlds, new life, new civilisations; this is exactly what you want from a Sci-Fi TV show! But, there have been over 700 episodes of Star Trek, so surely they must be running out of planets to visit?

Well, the latest research from NASA, using the Kepler satellite which looks for planets around other stars in our galaxy, suggests that 50% of stars in our galaxy have at least one Earth sized planet or bigger. There are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, which means there are at least 50 billion (that’s 50,000,000,000) planets in our galaxy! As there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the Universe, that means there could be 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s called 5 sextillion!) planets in the Universe! Mr Spock certainly has enough planets left in our Universe to beam down to.

But, how many of these have life on them? Well, this is much trickier question to answer. The only life that we know of in the Universe is down here on Earth. Space missions are planned to see whether life exists elsewhere in our own solar system, perhaps on Mars or on Saturn’s moon Titan, but there is no evidence so far that life exists anywhere other than on our own planet. We’ll let you judge for yourselves what the chances are that one of those 5 sextillion planets has life on it.

“She cannae take it Captain!”

This is the response by Scotty, the ship’s engineer, when asked to take the ship to a higher warp speed. But, what is warp speed? Well, light travels at a certain speed (around 300 million metres per second), which we call the speed of light (clever naming!). Scientists in the real Universe believe that this is the fastest speed that anything can travel; however, in the Star Trek universe, they have developed engines that can make ships travel faster than the speed of light, which they call warp speed. A ship travelling at warp speed two is travelling on average 8 times faster than the speed of light, for example.

But, there is a lot of proof in the real Universe that these speeds are impossible, because as you travel closer to the speed of light you need more and more energy. In fact, to travel at the speed of light, you would need an infinite amount of energy! So, warp speed might be science fiction rather than fact, but it would be rather boring if we had to watch the USS Enterprise spend a thousand years just to travel to a nearby star!

“Fire Photon Torpedoes!”

The USS Enterprise, carrying lots of Photon Torpedos, ready to shoot some aliens! (Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11225356)

The USS Enterprise, carrying lots of Photon Torpedos, ready to shoot some aliens! (Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11225356)

When you’re fighting off evil aliens, you need some powerful weapons, and no weapon is more famous in the Star Trek universe than the photon torpedoes. These torpedoes use small amounts of anti-matter and matter to create devastating explosions; but could we make these deadly weapons in real life? Well, matter is any kind of material made of atoms – that’s trees, the air, water, metal and pretty much everything in the Universe. Anti-matter is the opposite of it, a strange material which is made up of the opposite versions of the particles that make up atoms. Most of the Universe is made up by normal matter and not anti-matter, which is good, as when matter and anti-matter meet the violently explode!

Scientists are able to make very small amounts of anti-matter in labs, but not enough to make any big explosions from. The amount of energy released by an matter and anti-matter explosion is given by Einstein’s famous E=mc^2 equation. This equation states that 1 kilogram of matter and 1 kilogram of antimatter meeting would create an explosion with the energy of 43 megatons of TNT! So, whilst it may be possible for us to create photon torpedoes in the future, maybe it’s best that we don’t!

Live long and prosper

So, in conclusion, the science in the Star Trek Universe is pretty good; there are billions and billions of planets out there, many of which are suitable for carrying life; we can make anti-matter down here on Earth already, so photon torpedoes might not be too far away; and we might not be able to travel faster than the speed of light, but who want’s to watch a TV show about a thousand year journey to Alpha Centauri!


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