How Could Aliens Blow Up Earth?

Scientists say that a ten-second burst of gamma rays from a massive star explosion within 6,000 light years from Earth could have triggered a mass extinction hundreds of millions of years ago. In this artist's conception we see the gamma rays hitting the Earth's atmosphere. (The expanding shell is pictured as blue, but gamma rays are actually invisible.) The gamma rays initiate changes in the atmosphere that deplete ozone and create a brown smog of NO2. Credit: NASA

Earth. It seems so solid and permanent. But really, all you need to do is expand the Sun enough, and the entire planet would melt away. Or worse, find yourself at the mercy of some seriously powerful and angry aliens.

Actually, the beings who destroy Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which first aired on BBC Radio 4 on this day (March 8) in 1978, were not so much angry as logical about their reasons.

In the novel, Earthlings are shocked when extraterrestrial beings — known as the Vogons — arrive with plans to build a hyperspatial express route that runs through Earth’s orbit. The plans for the route were apparently lodged in Alpha Centauri (a star system four light-years away) for the past 50 Earth years, leaving residents of the planet “plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint.”

The Vogons then prepare to do the deed. The book Douglas Adams wrote describes it thusly:

“Energize the demolition beams.” Light poured out of the hatchways … There was a terrible ghastly silence. There was a terrible ghastly noise. There was a terrible ghastly science. The Vogon Constructor Fleet coasted away into the inky starry void.

The situation had us at Universe Today wondering: just how did the Vogons do it? There isn’t much to go on, admittedly; a demolition beam, and then a terrific noise as the planet breaks apart.

We scoured the Internet for some answers and came up with these ideas:

Anti matter

What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Anti matter is most simply, the opposite of matter. If you think of matter as being made up of electrons, neutrons and protons, anti matter has its own particles that have the opposite charge and magnetic moment (a property of magnetism.) You can read more technical details of anti matter in our past story, but here’s the important take-away: when matter and anti matter collide, they kill each other dead and produce gamma rays or other fundamental particles in the process. Phil Plait (author of the blog Bad Astronomy, now at Slate) says it’s indeed possible to blow up the Earth with it, but it would take a trillion tons. That’s not only complicated, but expensive. “Given that it currently costs hundreds of billions of dollars to make a single ounce of anti matter, you might have to work an extra job to cover the expense,” he wrote on Blastr.

Black hole

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If a black hole were to pop up right next to Earth or inside the planet, this might be a way to shrink the planet down to nothing super-quick. We’re not sure how the Vogons did this, but hey, we’re talking science fiction here. It’s also unclear to us how bright this would look (remember, the Vogons had a light beam), but maybe the Vogons turned on the lights for dramatic effect. And here we should interject with some sobering reality from NASA, too: “Black holes do not go around in space eating stars, moons and planets,” the agency once wrote, adding that even if a black hole appeared where the Sun is today, Earth still wouldn’t be sucked over there. In fact, the gravitational force would be identical and the planets would continue their merry orbits.

A Death Star

The Death Star in Star Wars. Credit: Lucasfilm.
The Death Star in Star Wars. Credit: Lucasfilm.

Yes yes, we know, we’re mixing up our science fiction franchises. This was actually a laser-blasting, planet-destroying machine from Star Wars. But at risk of offending the Internet, a couple of legitimate points: There’s nothing to stop alien civilizations from sharing technology, or perhaps acquiring it, rather than spend the money to develop it themselves. In 2011, three researchers from the University of Leicester suggested that indeed a Death Star could destroy a planet, given an adequate power source. Check out the details in our past Universe Today story.

Do you have some other ideas of how the Vogons destroyed Earth?

How Do You Build a Holodeck?

Star Trek first officer William Riker steps into a simulated jungle on the USS Enterprise-D's holodeck. Credit: Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios, via Memory alpha

What would it be like to step in an ordinary room and feel a gentle, computer-generated jungle breeze, with trees swaying nearby that you could touch?

AMD, a micro processor manufacturer, is trying to figure that out. The company has been doing a conference circuit in recent weeks promoting its research in heterogeneous system architecture, which is essentially a method to bind parallel computing processes together for greater efficiency.

The “holy grail” of these efforts, according to AMD’s Phil Rogers, would be building something like the holodeck — the computer deck on Star Trek (notably in The Next Generation) where characters would play immersive games. They could dial up a mystery novel, for example, then find themselves in a seedy bar with virtual-yet-real-looking holograms in 1940s-style clothing.

Rogers, a corporate fellow at AMD, has spent years working in 3-D technologies. It’s only recently that the company felt comfortable enough to speculate about the holodeck, he says. Other entities are also working on holodeck-like technologies, such as Microsoft and Stony Brook University, so perhaps that helped.

AMD believes it could be only 10 to 15 years before a holodeck becomes real. What would it take to get there?

A better-than-Imax video experience. We hope you’ve had the experience of sitting back in a domed Imax theatre and watching the shuttle launch in Hubble 3-D. Yet despite the awesome wrap-around view, it doesn’t feel like reality. A holodeck would need 360-degree fidelity. It would need to understand that objects get closer when you step towards them, and further when you step away. Perspective must tilt as you move your head.  “You inevitably have to combine multiple video feeds to do that and stitch them together seamlessly,” Rogers said.

The highest-fidelity audio ever. You know those people who swear that records produce better music than MP3s? “People are very much more fussy about video than audio,” Rogers points out. To make the holodeck feel real, the audio not only has to be immersive, but also directional and able to change as the person moves. The latest in surround-sound technologies doesn’t even close to that, he said.

The sensation of touch. Sure, Captain Jean-Luc Picard can slug a virtual villain in the head, but it wouldn’t have that same oomph unless Picard could feel his hand making contact with the other guy. “We still need to develop the tactile feedback, as somebody in a holodeck interacts with an object and another person they need to touch, and they need to feel that they touched,” Rogers said. “The most likely way that we’d do that is with targeted air jets, and transducers that haven’t been developed yet.”

Efficient memory allocation. While the blue screen of death in three dimensions would be rather epic, that’s not what holodeck designers want. The best way to keep the holodeck humming will be sharing memory between the central processing unit and the graphics processing unit, Rogers said. We’ve already made strides in this direction. Still, millions of parallel processes will have to happen simultaneously, so there’s quite a ways to go.

Lots of processing power. It will take mega computer juice to sync up the images, audio and other features that make the holodeck real. Remember that line in the movie Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks refers to the impressive computer “in a single room”? It’s laughable now when glancing at an iPhone, but we face a similar challenge now with holodecks. “The problem is it would take racks and racks of mainframe-like computers,” points out Rogers. A holodeck can’t be commercially available until the components fit to a small rack and draw small amounts of power.

Find paying customers. Naturally, a holodeck won’t happen without a captive market. We’ve had at least one petition asking the White House to build the Enterprise, but looks like that won’t happen anytime soon. Luckily for humanity, AMD has a backup. The firm believes business conference calls could really use a boost from holodeck-like technologies. Instead of having a talking head and a standard PowerPoint presentation, imagine how much more interesting the report would look if said person could, say, grab a virtual model of the solar system and spin it before your eyes.

Target the open-source community. For those people who want to channel their inner Wesley Crusher, AMD plans to leave at least some of the holodeck architecture open to amateur programmers. It’s hard to predict what computer languages will take hold at that time, but it would be the equivalent of letting somebody with C++ or Java experience into the hardware. Perhaps it will let you set your phasers to … whatever you choose.

Spock Weighs in on President Obama’s ‘Meld-Gate’

President Obama & Nichelle Nichols (image credit: Nichelle Nichols).

On March 1st 2013, President Obama awoke hoards of Star Trek and Star Wars fans when during a press conference he (purposely?) fused a Jedi Mind Trick and Vulcan Mind Meld into a: Jedi Mind Meld.  According to White House transcripts, President Obama was responding to CNN’s Jessica Yellin’s remark that he should have the leadership to force Congress to accept a deal to avert the damaging sequester.  President Obama replied to her by first stating that he was not a dictator, and second that he would not use a Jedi Mind Meld to coerce Congress into accepting a deal.

For those who are unaware, a Vulcan Mind Meld and Jedi Mind Trick are indeed different. Two videos are posted below that shed light on that difference.  The first video features Spock performing a Vulcan Mind Meld (Star Trek), and the second involves Obi-Wan Kenobi inacting a Jedi Mind Trick (Star Wars).

Although the pundits initially believed that the President’s mixing of terms was a mistake, experts in some quarters now believe that by using a Jedi Mind Meld President Obama could simulatenously ascertain both his foes’ true intentions and coerce them into accepting a deal.  The President may have likewise been contemplating how Congress could be spurred into action, and perhaps thought as a last resort he’d recruit Star Trek and Star Wars fans worldwide to pressure Congress.  Toward that end the White House released the following image via their Twitter feed, and also launched the website

The White House released this image to raise awarness of the sequester ( , image credit: Whitehouse).
The White House released this image and created the following website ( to raise awareness of the damaging sequester (image credit: White House).

However, Leonard Nimoy (Spock) has weighed into ‘Meld-gate’, and advised President Obama to forget about Jedi Mind Tricks altogether since, “Only a Vulcan mind meld will help with this congress. Live Long and Prosper.

President Obama isn’t the only politician who happens to be an avid Star Trek fan. King Abdullah II of Jordan was lucky enough to make a cameo on Star Trek Voyager.  Will President Obama be making a cameo in the new Star Trek film “Into the Darkness” directed by J. J. Abrams?  Incidentally, Abrams will likewise be directing the new Star Wars: Episode VII movie.  Perhaps the President is on to something?

In Reality, Nebulae Offer No Place for Spaceships to Hide

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.

The Cost of Exploring Space: Film vs. Reality

We all know that space exploration, while certainly not the largest expenditure of most countries, doesn’t come cheap. But neither do big-budget science fiction films, either. Special effects, sets, special effects, popular acting talent… special effects… those all come with hefty price tags that make sci-fi and fantasy films costly ventures — although bigger definitely isn’t always better. If you were to compare the price of real space exploration missions (which provide actual information) to the costs of movies about space exploration (which provide “only” entertainment) what would you expect to find?

This infographic does just that:


“Prometheus’ movie budget would be enough to keep the search for real aliens going for another 52 years.”

Wow. (Maybe they should have just written a check to SETI.)

Infographic provided by Neo Mammalian Studios and U.S.S. Enterprise © CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Blast it Wedge, We’re Not Getting a Death Star

The Death Star in Star Wars. Credit: Lucasfilm.

Well, it’s official. The Obama Administration has said no to a petition asking the US government to build a Death Star. On the “We the People” petition site, if a petition gets 25,000 people to sign, the Obama administration has promised to reply. There have been some really crazy petitions put forth – one person wanted to be named emperor, another wanted a statue built – but there have been some creative and meaningful petitions as well. Then there’s the petition to “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.” Creative… yes. Meaningful? Probably not, but it certainly got a lot of attention.

And Paul Shawcross, the Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, who replied to this petition, did right by Star Wars and sci-fi fans, and in an imaginative and inspiring way.

Titled “This isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For,” Shawcross’s response said the real reasons we won’t get a Death Star is because:
1. The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
2. The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
3. Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

He outlined how we already have a space station, a laser-wielding robot on Mars, and are discovering hundreds of new planets orbiting other stars.

“We are living in the future! Enjoy it,” Shawcross wrote. “Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field…. If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

There’s still time to sign the petition for looking into building a working version of the Starship Enterprise; right not that petition has just over 6,000 signatures.

Late addition:

Via comes the news that evil Empire has posted a response to the White House’s decision not to build a Death Star:

IMPERIAL CENTER, CORUSCANT – The overwhelming military superiority of the Galactic Empire has been confirmed once again by the recent announcement by the President of the United States that his nation would not attempt to build a Death Star, despite the bellicose demands of the people of his tiny, aggressive planet. “It is doubtless that such a technological terror in the hands of so primitive a world would be used to upset the peace and sanctity of the citizens of the Galactic Empire,” said Governor Wilhuff Tarkin of the Outer Rim Territories. “Such destructive power can only be wielded to protect and defend by so enlightened a leader as Emperor Palpatine.”
Representatives on behalf of the nation-state leader from the unimaginatively named planet refused to acknowledge the obvious cowardice of their choice, preferring instead to attribute the decision to fiscal responsibility. “The costs of construction they cited were ridiculously overestimated, though I suppose we must keep in mind that this miniscule planet does not have our massive means of production,” added Admiral Conan Motti of the Imperial Starfleet.

Emissaries of the Emperor also caution any seditious elements within the Galactic Senate not to believe Earth’s exaggerated claims of there being a weakness in the Death Star design. “Any attacks made upon such a station – should one ever be built – would be a useless gesture,” added Motti.

This article was updated on January 15, 2013.

SETI Astronomer Jill Tarter Recalls ‘Contact,’ 15 Years On

SETI's Jill Tarter. Credit: SETI


In 1985, famed astronomer, author and TV host Carl Sagan invited Jill Tarter to dinner at his house near Cornell University. Tarter, heavily involved with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, gladly accepted the chance to speak with Sagan, a member of SETI’s board of trustees.

Seated with Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, Tarter learned that Sagan had a fiction book on the go.

“Annie said, ‘You may recognize someone in the book, but I think you’ll like her,'” Tarter recalled in an interview with Universe Today.

Suspecting the character was based on herself, Tarter’s response to Druyan was: “‘Just make sure she doesn’t eat ice cones so much.’ It was something I was teased about.”

Female, in a male-dominated field

It was 15 years ago this month that the movie Contact, based on Sagan’s book of the same title, expanded to a run in international theatres after a successful summer in North America. The movie explores the implication of aliens making contact with Earth, but does it from more of a scientific perspective than most films.

While Contact, the movie did not talk about the pi sequences or advanced mathematical discussions in Contact, the book, it did bring concepts such as prime numbers, interference with radio telescopes, and the religion vs. science debate to theatres in 1997.

Tarter, who has just retired as the long-time director of the SETI Institute, said she was stunned by the parallels between her own life and that of Ellie Arroway, the character based on her in Contact. Both lost parents at an early age. Both also had to make their way in a field aggressively dominated by males.

Tarter recalls a meeting with fellow female scientists of her generation some years ago.

“A huge percentage of us had been, in high school, either cheerleaders or drum majorettes. This is so counterintuitive, right? Because we’re the nerds, we’re the brainy ones … (it was because) we were all competitors, and there weren’t any (female) sports to compete at. These sports were open, and we competed, and we generally won.”

Working on set

Tarter cautions the parallels did not totally match. The hopes and aspirations of Ellie in the book, and also the movie, were products of Sagan’s imagination. But the producers and actors of the film did want to get a close sense of what it was like to work with SETI.

After Jodie Foster was cast as Ellie, there were multiple phone calls between the actress and Tarter to discuss SETI.

“From her point of view, she was clear she wasn’t going to teach anyone astronomy. She was interested, in a personal way, about what the scientists were like,” Tarter said.

When the crew was filming at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Tarter flew there to observe the work, meet with Foster and also show the actress around. Tarter recalls bringing Foster up in a cabin that had a perfect view of the telescope, some 500 feet above the dish.

Microphones and walkie-talkies

Filming was an interesting process for Tarter, as well. There were the microphones, and the tools the crew used to check continuity. Most amusingly for Tarter, she observed Foster (reported height 5 feet, 2 inches) needing to stand on a box for most of the close-up shots with actor Matthew McConaughey (reported as 6 feet tall).

Two errors still irk Tarter today. There is a scene when Ellie gives a modified version of the Drake Equation, which calculates the odds of intelligent life who are capable of communicating with other life forms, and the calculations are all wrong. “It’s really infuriating,” Tarter said.

The other large mistake is a scene where Ellie gets a potential signal from space, while working at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array set of radio telescopes in New Mexico.

“She’s sitting in the middle of the array, in a car, with her laptop, and she gets the signal. And the first thing she does is pick up a walkie-talkie and start broadcasting. That signal is going to wipe out the signal from the sky. You don’t transmit by walkie-talkie.”

But overall, Tarter said the movie did a great job at portraying the feel of SETI. And Foster appreciated Tarter’s help. “She would write me handwritten thank-you notes, which was a kind of manner that most people have lost. A great courtesy.”

Hollywood outreach

Tarter walked the red carpet at the movie premiere and spent most of her time watching the film in tears of happiness. That euphoria evaporated when she saw the SETI Institute was not credited at the end of the film. When she talked to one of the film producers, she said she was informed that lawyers usually draft agreements specifying the length of time the credit appears, and the compensation received for doing so.

“We don’t have a lawyer at the SETI Institute,” she said. “When I write a paper, I acknowledge my collaborators. We got that wrong, so we never got any credit. We might have gotten even more recognition.”

But the professional connection with Foster still remains. Foster happily responded to a request from Tarter to do voice-overs for a video clip used for a SETI high school curriculum for integrated science. She also narrated a show, Life: A Cosmic Story, for the California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium.

Tarter is now shifting into full-time outreach for SETI, saying the budgetary problems that shut down the organization’s Allen Telescope Array for several months last year were a warning call.

One of the organization’s newest initiatives is, which crowdsources analysis of signals from the Kepler Field. SETI solicits the public to take some time looking at the signal patterns, one at a time, in search of extraterrestrial communications.

“SETI is too important to allow it to fail,” Tarter said, adding her focus is finding substantial, stable funding from “that individual or institution that is capable of taking a long view.”

Captain Kirk’s Future Small-Town Beginnings

Captain Kirk's birthplace
Captain Kirk's birthplace

In Riverside, Iowa — population less than 1,000 in the last census — getting your hands on future space history requires an adventurous spirit.

Visitors to the town must keep their eyes peeled on the main road for a subtle banner pointing in between two buildings. Wedged in the backyard is a special stone marking what townspeople say is the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.

Commemorating the famed Star Trek captain’s beginnings dates back to 1985, when the town was looking for a theme for its annual festival. Now dubbed Trekfest, the festival draws legions of Trekkies to the small town every year during the last weekend of June. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry once wrote a book saying Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa, and the Riverside City Council unanimously passed a motion proclaiming itself to be the future birthplace of Kirk.

The marker for Kirk’s birthplace, according to Trekfest, had the blessing of Roddenberry, and William Shatner himself visited Riverside in 2004.

Past performers at Trekfest include Five Year Mission, a band that aims to write one song based on each of the original Star Trek episodes. (Two albums are finished so far). The town is also home to “The Voyage Home” gift shop and a moveable mini starship, which was on tour during Universe Today‘s visit last week.

Lead image by Elizabeth Howell.

Elizabeth Howell (M.Sc. Space Studies ’12) is a contributing editor for SpaceRef and award-winning space freelance journalist living in Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in publications such as, Air & Space Smithsonian, Physics Today, the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.,  CTV and the Ottawa Business Journal.

Report: UFO Sightings Coincide with Popular Sci-Fi Films, TV

Scene from the movie "Independance Day." Credit: 20th Century Fox

The British Ministry of Defense released 4,000 pages of documents detailing hundreds of UFO sightings between 1981 and 1996. A summary of the documents by UFO expert David Clarke comes as no surprise to scientists and skeptics: many of the sightings coincide with the release of popular sci-fi movies or television shows.

609 UFO sightings in 1996, compared with 117 in 1995 correspond with the rise in popularity of the “X Files” television show and the release of the alien blockbuster film “Independence Day.” “Obviously, films and TV programs raise public awareness of UFOs and it’s fascinating to see how that appears to lead more people to report what they see to the authorities,” Clarke said.

The documents released include sightings reported by police officers and fighter pilots as well as young children, the Daily Mail reported Monday. 90% of the sightings could be explained by mundane objects such as bright stars and planets, meteors, artificial satellites and airship advertising.

The other 10% were listed as “unexplained,” mainly because of insufficient information.

For an excellent overview of what really happened in one of the most famous UFO stories of all, the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico alien spaceship crash, listen to Brian Dunning’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast on the subject.

Source: Reuters, UPI