In Reality, Nebulae Offer No Place for Spaceships to Hide

by Elizabeth Howell on February 22, 2013

The nebulas in Battlestar: Blood and Chrome make for nice scenery, but they're a lot brighter than the truth, according to a Harvard astronomer. Credit: Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome/Machinima (screencap)

The nebulas in Battlestar: Blood and Chrome make for nice scenery, but they’re a lot brighter than the truth, according to a Harvard astronomer. Credit: Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome/Machinima (screencap)

In the Battlestar: Galactica universe, nebulas are a nifty spot to hide from the Cylons that are plotting to kill humanity. There’s just one problem with the hypothesis, though — these diffuse areas of gas in our universe are actually very faint, even if you get close up. Probably too faint for a hiding spot.

Prequel Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome (released on DVD this week) shows the young William Adama flying around the universe with pretty nebulas in the background. That’s not anywhere near the truth, Harvard astronomer Peter Williams told Universe Today.

In an e-mail, Williams explained that bright nebulas are a common misperception seen in Star Wars, Star Trek and a host of other sci-fi series.

The big issue is that nebulae are just too faint for the human eye to see. And while it’s tempting to think that they’d look brighter from up close, in fact this isn’t actually true — they actually look just as bright from any distance! This is a law of optics, known in the jargon as the “conservation of surface brightness”. The key is that there are two competing effects in play. Imagine that you can see a nebula that’s, say, the size of the full moon.

Yes, if you get closer, your eye will receive more total power from the nebula. But the nebula will also look bigger, so that energy will be spread out over a larger visual area (technically: “solid angle”). The physics tells you that the power per solid angle in fact stays exactly the same, and this quantity is precisely the “brightness” of an object. So if nebula are too faint for to see from Earth with the naked eye — and they are — getting up close and personal doesn’t help any.

Those bright colors surrounding Battlestar's ships are not actually what you would see if nestled in a nebula, according to  Harvard astronomer. Credit: Battlestar Galactica/SciFi (screencap)

The opening sequence in Battlestar: Galactica shows the ships hiding in a bright nebula. Credit: Battlestar Galactica/SciFi (screencap)

Further, Williams, explains, the bright colors we’re used to seeing in Hubble Space Telescope images are just an approximation of what a nebula actually looks like.

Reproduced images of nebulae don’t portray their colors accurately. As you may know, some astronomical images use “false color” to represent wavelengths of light that humans can’t even see. This does happen with images of nebulae, but nebulae really are colorful, and many nebula images try to reproduce those colors faithfully. No current reproduction, however, can be truly accurate.

The Crab Nebula. Image credit: Hubble

The Crab Nebula. Image credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope.

The problem is that the colorful nebular emission comes from reactions that produce light at a few, specific wavelengths; meanwhile, our inks and pixels emit over much broader wavelength ranges. We can mix these broad ranges in ways that approximate the narrow ones, but the results aren’t quite the same.

For an entertaining look at the science of nebulas, Williams recommends this entertaining video by astronomer Phil Plait, a long-time friend of Universe Today who is best known for his Bad Astronomy blog (now at Slate). “If you were inside [the nebula and looked down], you wouldn’t see it,” Plait says in this 2008 clip.

Guess it’s time to find another spot to hide.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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