The latest "Star Trek" motion picture, which takes place in the mid-23rd century A.D., will hopefully engage a new generation in the wonder of space exploration. While the Trek franchise has always displayed a respect for modern astronomy and other areas of space science, including exotic technologies that are theoretically possible.
With the new Trek movie in many cinemas this week, it's an ideal moment to review some of the science-fictional ideas and gadgetry presented in the original series. Are they possible? And do any Trek gewgaws exist now?
•Warp Drive: The starship U.S.S. Enterprise of "Star Trek" fame flits among the stars using an exotic propulsion system, warp drive. The warp is an artificial bubble that bends the space-time continuum. The bubble encapsulates Capt. Kirk and pals within the ship's own space-time reality. By warping space-time outside, the vessel can travel faster than light. While Einstein said it couldn't be done, some research suggests FTL (faster-than-light) travel is theoretically possible-barely.
In 1994,Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre-inspired by "Star Trek"-presented a mathematical model for the Alcubierre warp. Alcubierre's principle shrinks space-time ahead of a spacecraft and expands it behind. Sounds fascinating, as Mr. Spock would say, but the engineering skills required to create the thing don't exist. Also, Alcubierre's warp would require "dark energy" for it to work. And just like FTL, dark energy is hypothetical. So all of this will remain a flight of fancy for a long time to come. •Matter Transporter: Trek's transporters convert or dematerialize matter into tight energy patterns. This energy pattern can be beamed great distances to be reconstituted or rematerialized into the original object. Great way to travel, eh? Right now the only thing remotely close to teleportation is a thing call quantum teleportation. This technique, pioneered by IBM, can transfer bits of information on a quantum level. Quantum teleportation can be used to move particles to new locations, but it's not "Star Trek"-neither energy nor matter is transported; you can't transmit FTL data either. Still, quantum transportation may be big stuff someday: It's a radically new paradigm for computation; it's doing computation on an atomic scale.
•Communicators: Trekkers point to flip phones, modern mobile/cellular telephones, as being a Trek prophesy come true-well, not really. Trek's communicators are hand held like modern cell phones, but they are far more. Communicators use subspace radio to work. Subspace is a purely fictional invention. But it is fun to mention that American engineer Martin Cooper, inventor of today's cell phones, thanked "Star Trek" for his inspiring his invention.
•Extraterrestrial life: We haven't found life on any planet beyond the Earth-yet. In 1996, NASA scientists found what might be traces of microscopic life inside a martian meteorite found in Antarctica, but the discovery sparked a scientific controversy that was never really settled. A few astronomers are involved in SETI-the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. They employ large, radio telescopes to listen for audio communications among the stars. To date, ET has neither phoned home nor phoned NASA.
What's in the Sky: Look for beautiful Antares, also called Alpha Scorpii, the orange star, to the upper right hand side of the Moon this weekend. Best time to look is late evening. Giant Antares is 600 light years away; its diameter is 700 times the size of our Sun.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is involved with the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program and is a second lieutenant with the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.