Firecrackers and warp drive
- May 8, 2009 3:54 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks
While Trekkies around the world line up this weekend for the launch of the latest Star Trek movie, astronauts in Florida are preparing to launch Space Shuttle Atlantis to the Hubble Space Telescope on Monday.
It’s interesting to compare how far we have and have not come, considering the space program and the Hollywood series have been in existence almost the same length of time.
When the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise began their five-year mission in 1966, NASA was less than 10 years old and the space race to the moon, between Americans and Russians, was in full swing. Star Trek captured the spirit of the times, where humans were leaving planet Earth for the first time with visions of space hotels, colonies on the moon and trips to the planets well within the realm of possibility - which in technical terms they were.
40 years later, the fictional spacefarers have expanded across the galaxy, use wormholes as shortcuts and can even travel through time. Real astronauts, meanwhile, are strapping themselves into dangerous firecrackers that blast them into low orbits and cannot even reach the moon.
In fact, the plan to return to the moon involves going back to sixties-style technology with small, four-person capsules atop ballistic missiles that splash down in the ocean at the end of a mission. That’s a long way from a 642-metre-long Galaxy Class Starship with a crew of a thousand, a holodeck, and a lounge on the forward deck serving Romulan Ale.
In all fairness, our space program is still 200 years behind the fictional trail. And while Captain Kirk’s communicator has become a cellphone and phasers set to stun have become tasers (crude comparisons), we are a long, long way from freely hopping between the stars, meeting interesting aliens who all happen to be fluent in English.
The one thing that could really allow us to go anywhere in space, the one technical revolution that sent the Federation to the stars, the one we desperately need today, is warp drive. If there was only one fictional technology from Star Trek that we could have today that would change everything, warp drive is it. Sure, beam transporters would be handy, but we’d still be late for appointments. Food replicators would be convenient but we’d probably just eat more. With warp drive, spaceships could travel faster than light and astronauts wouldn’t need seatbelts.
And speaking of seatbelts, have you ever wondered why crew members aren’t flattened against the back wall, or why glasses don’t fly off tables when the Enterprise accelerates from a standing start to warp 9 in half a second?
The reason, according to the Starfleet Manuals, is because the ship warps space around itself, creating a bubble that compresses space-time in front and expands it behind. Within the bubble, everything remains normal, so no one feels the acceleration. Meanwhile, the bubble itself slips through space-time like a wet watermelon seed between your fingers. Nice idea. Too bad no one knows how to do it.
While Einstein described warped space around black holes and quantum physicists talk about tiny tubes of space-time rolled into sub-atomic strings, no one is anywhere near being able to manipulate the fabric of space itself. We can’t even figure out the most fundamental force in the universe, gravity, let alone surf on a gravitational wave.
So today we’re stuck with our explosive rockets that can barely make it out of the atmosphere because they run out of fuel in less than 10 minutes. As long as we stay with that crude technology, we’ll be confined to visiting the moon and nearby planets. Traveling to the nearest stars, at the moment, would take longer than a human lifetime.
In a way, our primitive space technology makes our current astronauts braver than the fictional crew of a starship. Climbing into a space shuttle carries a high risk of death, both on the way up and on the way down. Space walkers are exposed to the increasing hazard of space junk, where a space suit could be punctured by a small screw traveling at hypersonic speeds. Here in the 21st century, space travel is still very difficult, expensive and dangerous.
But while we may not be able to journey very far with our bodies, we can certainly see a lot farther. After this fourth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, the big eye in the sky will be more powerful than ever. And the discoveries it makes are stranger than any science fiction. Hubble can see out to the edge of the universe and back towards the beginning of time, much farther than any starship can go. It finds black holes hiding in the centers of galaxies, giant clouds giving birth to new stars, cosmic collisions on a scale that dwarfs Federation Space.
So let’s celebrate both, a flight of fancy to the limits of our imagination and a look out to the true mysteries of the universe that we may one day reach. After all, science fiction would be nowhere without the real science leading the way.
(And take a listen to our documentary tribute to Hubble on this week’s show.)
All News blogs
Quirks and Quarks
- Chris Hadfield's fall from space
- The final segment of Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield's mission, the return to Earth on Monday evening, will be the most difficult of all. As he plunges into the atmosphere, he will transform from a free floating body to a heavy prisoner of gravity. Continue reading this post
- Glimmer of hope even as planet hits CO2 climate milestone
- A new record level of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere has been recorded at the Mauna Loa observatory on the island of Hawaii, the world's premier atmospheric monitoring station. Continue reading this post
- Celebrating 60 years of DNA
- A ceremony at Cambridge University in England this week unveiled a memorial to Dr. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule. His co-author, Dr. James Watson, now 85, attended the ceremony for a discovery many consider to be as important as Darwin's theory of evolution and Einstein's theory of relativity. Continue reading this post