I grew up watching Star Trek inspired by what Trek imagined the future could be.
Earth had done away with poverty, disease, war. Humanity, in cooperation with other alien civilizations, explored the Galaxy on ships like the USS Enterprise doing good where possible. Diplomatic missions, crisis relief, medical aid. Star Trek is a view of what humanity could be if we were brave and bold but also empathetic and kind – us at our best.
Lately our 21st century world has been…well…a hard place to be – harder for some than others. What if the Star Trek fandom could take some inspiration from that imagined future to make change in the present? This weekend is a chance to make it so with “TrekTalks” – a livestream telethon featuring an incredible lineup of Star Trek cast and crew to benefit the Hollywood Food Coalition starting tomorrow (January 15th) at 11:45am Pacific Time and running to 7:45pm PT
After traveling to the edge of space this week, William Shatner and the crew of the NS-18 mission made it back to Earth safe and sound. This was the second time Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle flew to space with a crew aboard, and as with the inaugural flight, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos decided to enlist some star power! Who better than the man known to millions of fans as James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the starship Enterprise?
At 90 years of age, the veteran actor of television, film, and stage is the oldest person to fly to space. The previous record was held by 82-year old veteran aviator Wally Funk, who went to space as part of the first crewed flight of the New Shepard on July 20th. Along with his fellow crewmembers, Shatner’s experienced what it’s like to go to space for the first time from the company’s Launch Site One facility in West Texas.
Now that the US Space Force’s new uniforms have been eviscerated on social media (that was solast week) it’s up to their new logo to keep the uproar going. The newest branch of the US Armed Forces hasn’t disappointed: their logo looks like the Star Fleet logo from Star Trek, inviting all kinds of rancorous comparisons on the internet.
One of the more interesting and rewarding aspects of astronomy and space exploration is seeing science fiction become science fact. While we are still many years away from colonizing the Solar System or reaching the nearest stars (if we ever do), there are still many rewarding discoveries being made that are fulfilling the fevered dreams of science fiction fans.
For instance, using the Dharma Planet Survey, an international team of scientists recently discovered a super-Earth orbiting a star just 16 light-years away. This super-Earth is not only the closest planet of its kind to the Solar System, it also happens to be located in the same star system as the fictional planet Vulcan from the Star Trek universe.
Ethan Siegel is the author of the new book, Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive. In his book, Ethan examines over 25 items from the Star Trek universe, describes their underlying science, and lets his readers know how close we are to having many of these iconic items today.
Ethan is a PhD astrophysicist and science communicator known for his award winning blog, Starts with a Bang, and his regular online contributions to Forbes (you can find his writings here. )
Both Treknology and Ethan’s first book, Beyond the Galaxy: How humanity looked beyond our Milky Way and discovered the entire Universe, are available on Amazon.
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!
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Scientists, futurists, and science fiction writers have been talking about it for over a century, and fans of science fiction and futurists have fantasized about it for just as long. The portable directed-energy weapon that zaps your enemies, rendering them incapacitated or reducing them to a pile of ashes!
The concept has gone through many iterations over the decades, ranging from laser pistols and cannons to phasers. And yet, this staple of science fiction is largely based in science fact. Since the early 20th century, scientists have sought to develop a working directed-energy weapon, based on ideas put forward by many inventors and scientists.
A”death ray” is a theoretical particle beam or electromagnetic weapon that was originally proposed independently during the 1920s and 30s by multiple scientists. From these initial proposals, research into energy-based weapons has been ongoing. While most examples come predominantly from science fiction, several applications and proposals have been produced during the latter half of the 20th century.
During the early 20th century, many scientists claimed that they had created a working death ray. For instance, in September of 1924, British inventor Harry Grindell-Matthews attempted to sell what he reported to be a death ray that could destroy human life and bring down planes at a distance to the British Air Ministry.
While he was never able to produce a functioning model or demonstrate it to the military, news of this prompted American inventor Edwin R. Scott to claim that he was the first to develop a death ray. According to Scott, he had done so in 1923, which was the result of the nine years he spent as a student and protege of Charles P. Steinmetz – a German-American professor at Union College, New York.
In 1934, Spanish inventor Antonion Longoria claimed to have invented a death ray machine which he had tested on pigeons at a distance of about 6.5 km (4 miles). He also claimed to have killed mice that were enclosed in a thick-walled metal chamber.
However, it was famed inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla who provided the most detailed framework for such a device. In a 1934 interview with Time Magazine, Tesla explained the concept of a “teleforce” (or directed energy) weapon which would be capable of destroying entire squadrons of airplanes or an entire army at a distance of 400 km (250 miles).
Tesla tried to interest the US War Department and several European countries in the device at the time, though none contracted with Tesla to build it. As Tesla described his invention in an article titled “A Machine to End War“, which appeared in Liberty Magazine in 1935:
“this invention of mine does not contemplate the use of any so-called ‘death rays’. Rays are not applicable because they cannot be produced in requisite quantities and diminish rapidly in intensity with distance. All the energy of New York City (approximately two million horsepower) transformed into rays and projected twenty miles, could not kill a human being, because, according to a well known law of physics, it would disperse to such an extent as to be ineffectual. My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist.”
Based on his descriptions, the device would constitute a large tower that could be mounted on top of a building, positioned either next to shores or near crucial infrastructure. This weapon, he claimed, would be defensive in nature, in that it would make any nation employing it impregnable to attack from air, land or sea, and up to a distance of 322 km (200 miles).
During World War II, multiple efforts were mounted by the Axis powers to create so-called “death rays”. For instance, Imperial Japan developed a concept they called “Ku-Go”, which sought to use microwaves created in a large magnetron as a weapon.
Meanwhile, the Nazis mounted two projects, one which was led by the researcher known as Schiebold that involved a particle accelerator and beryllium rods. The second, led by Dr. Rolf Wideroe, was developed at the Dresden Plasma Physics Laboratory until it was bombed in Feb. 1945. In April of that year, as the war was coming to close, the device was taken into custody by the US Army.
On January 7th, 1943, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla died in his room at the Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan. A story quickly developed that within his room, Tesla had scientific paper in his possession that provided the most detailed description yet for a death ray. These documents, it was claimed, had been seized by the US military, who wanted them for the sake of the war effort.
Examples in Science Fiction:
Ray guns, and other examples of directed-energy weapons have been a common feature in science fiction for over a century. One of the first known examples comes from H.G. Wells seminal book, War of the Worlds, which featured Martian war machines that used “heat rays”. However, the first use of the term was in The Messiah of the Cylinder (1917), by Victor Rousseau Emanuel.
Ray guns were also a regular feature in comic books like Buck Rogers (first published in 1928) and Flash Gordon, published in 1934. In Alfred Noyes’ 1940 novel The Last Man (released as No Other Man in the US), a death ray developed by a German scientist named Mardok is unleashed in a global war and almost wipes out the human race.
The concept of the blaster was introduced by Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Series, which were described as nuclear-powered handheld weapons that fired energetic particles. In Frank Herbert’s Dune series, energy weapons take the form of continuous-wave laser projectors (lasguns), which are rendered obsolete by the invention of “Holtzman shields”.
According to Herbert, the interaction of a lasgun blast and this force field results in a nuclear explosion which typically kills both the gunner and the target. Further examples of death rays can be found in just about any science fiction franchise, ranging from phasers (Star Trek) and laser blasters (Star Wars) to spaceship-mounted beam cannons.
In terms of real-world applications, many attempts have been made to create directed-energy weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. For instance, the development of radar before World War II was the result of attempts to find applications for directed electromagnetic energy (in this case, radio waves).
In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program (nicknamed “Star Wars”). It suggested that lasers, perhaps space-based X-ray lasers, could destroy ICBMs in flight. During the Iraq War, electromagnetic weapons, including high power microwaves were used by the U.S. military to disrupt and destroy the Iraqi electronic systems.
On March 18th, 2009 Northrop Grumman announced that its engineers in Redondo Beach had successfully built and tested an electric laser capable of producing a 100-kilowatt ray of light, powerful enough to destroy cruise missiles, artillery, rockets and mortar rounds. And on July 19th, 2010, an anti-aircraft laser was unveiled at the Farnborough Airshow, described as the “Laser Close-In Weapon System”.
In 2014, the US Navy made headlines when they unveiled their AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (or XN-1 LaWS), a directed-energy weapon designed for use on military vessels. Ostensibly, the purpose of the weapon is defensive, designed to either blind enemy sensors (when set to low-intensity) or shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) when set to high-intensity.
Then is what is known as “Active Denial Systems”, which use a microwave source to heat up the water in the target’s skin, thus causing physical pain. Currently, this concept is being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory and Raytheon – a US defense contractor – as a means of riot-control.
A Dazzler is another type of directed-energy weapon, one which uses infrared or visible light to temporarily blind an enemy. Targets can include human beings, or their sensors (particularly in the infrared band). The emitters are usually lasers (hence the term “laser dazzler”)and can be portable or mounted on the outside of vehicles (as with the Russian T-80 and T-90 tank).
An example of the former is the Personnel Halting And Stimulation Response rifle (PHASR), a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate. Its purpose is give infantry or other military personnel the ability to temporarily disorient and blind a target without causing permanent damage.
Blinding laser weapons were banned by treated under the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which was passed in 1995. However, the terms of this protocol do not apply to directed-energy weapons that inflict only temporary blindness.
We’ve come a long way since the term “raygun” became a household name. At this rate, who knows what the future will hold? Will Tesla’s dream of a Death Ray ever come true? Will we see directed-energy satellites put in orbit, or handheld lasers becoming the mainstay of armed forces and space explorers? Hard to say. All we can be sure of is that the truth will likely be stranger than the fiction!
If you’ve watched any Ren and Stimpy cartoons, you know that one of the greatest hazards of spaceflight is “space madness”. Only exposure to the isolation and all pervasive radiation of deep space could drive an animated chihuahua into such a state of lunacy.
What will happen if they press the history eraser button? Maybe something good? Maybe something bad? I guess, we’ll never know.
Of course, Ren and Stimpy weren’t the first fictionalized account of people losing their marbles when they fly into the inky darkness of space. There were the Reavers from Firefly, that crazy Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, almost everyone in the movie Sunshine, and it was the problem in every second episode of Star Trek.
According to movies and television, if you’ve got space madness, you and your crewmates are in for a rough ride. If you’re lucky, you merely hallucinate those familiar space sirens, begging you to take off your space helmet and join them for eternity on that asteroid over there.
But you’re just as likely to go homicidal, turning on your crewmates, killing them one by one as a dark sacrifice to the black hole that powers your ship’s stardrive. And whatever you do, don’t stare too long at that pulsar, with its hypnotic, rhythmic pulse. The isolation, the alien psycho-waves, dark whisperings from eldritch gods speak to you though the paper-thin membrane of sanity. If we go to space, does only madness await us?
If you’ve spent any time around human beings, you know that we’ve got our share of mental disease right here on Earth. You don’t have to travel to space to suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.
Once we’re in orbit, or prancing about on the surface, of Mars, we’re going to experience our share of human physical and mental frailties. We’re going to take our basic humanity to space, including our brains.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of the US population, or 40 million Americans suffer from some variety of anxiety-related disorder. 6.7% of adults had a major, crippling depressive episode over the course of a year.
Unless we improve treatment outcomes for mental disorders here on Earth, we can expect to see similar outcomes in space. Especially once we make exploration a little safer, and we’re not concerned with our immediate exposure to the vacuum of space. But will going to space make things worse?
NASA has carried out two studies on astronaut psychological health studies. One for the cosmonauts and astronauts on the Mir space station, and a second study for the folks on the International Space Station. They tested both the folks in space as well as their ground support staff once a week, to see how they were doing.
Although they reported some tension, there was no loss in mood or group cohesion during the mission. The crews had better cohesion when they had an effective leader on board.
Isolation working in close quarters has been heavily studied here on Earth, with submarine crews and isolated groups at research bases in Antarctica.
Earlier this year, a crew of simulated Mars astronauts emerged, unharmed from a year-long isolation experiment in Hawaii. The six international crewmembers were part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation experiment, to see what would happen to potential Mars explorers, stuff on the surface of the red planet for a year.
They couldn’t leave their 110 square-meter (1,200 square-foot) habitat without a spacesuit on. What did they report? Mostly boredom. Some interpersonal issues. Now that they’re out, some are good friends, and others probably won’t stay in contact, or pay too much attention to them in their Facebook feed.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t seem like there’s too much of a risk from the isolation and close quarters. Well, nothing that we’re not used to dealing with as human beings.
But there is another problem that has revealed itself, and might be much more severe: space dementia. And we’re not talking about the song from Muse.
According to researchers from the University of California, Irvine, long term exposure to the radiation of deep space will cause significant damage to our fragile human brains. Or at least, that’s what happened to a group of rats bathed in radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Over time, the damage to their brains would cause astronauts to experience a type of dementia that causes anxiety. Brain cancer patients who receive radiation treatment are prone to this as well.
During the months and years of a Mars mission, astronauts would take a large dose of radiation, even with shielding, and the effects would be harmful to their bodies and to their brains. In fact, even when the astronauts return to Earth, their condition might worsen, with more anxiety, depression, memory problems, and a loss of decision making ability. This is a serious problem that needs to be solved if humans are going to live for a long time outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere.
It turns out, science fiction space madness isn’t a real thing, it’s a plot device like warp drives, teleporters, and light sabers.
Isolation and close proximity isn’t much of a problem, we’ve dealt with it before, and we can still work with people, even though we hate them and the way they slurp their coffee, and lean back on their chair, even though that thing is totally going to break and they’re going to hurt themselves. And they won’t stop doing it, no matter how many times we ask them to stop.
Once again, radiation in space is a big problem. It’s out there, it’s everywhere, and we don’t have a great way to protect against it. Especially when it wrecks our brains.
Whenever I go to the post office to pick up stamps I always ask for the most colorful ones. No dead president heads for me. Mailing letters is a rare thing nowadays — might as well choose something colorful and interesting. How sweet then that we’ll soon be able to pick and stick our favorite planets (and dwarf planet!) on the mail and send them flying off to far places.
The U.S. Postal Service sneak-previewed a new series of stamps earlier this year highlighting NASA’s Planetary Science program, including a do-over of a famous Pluto stamp commemorating the New Horizons’ historic 2015 flyby. Also in the works are eight new colorful Forever stamps featuring NASA images of the planets, a Global Forever stamp dedicated to Earth’s moon and a tribute to 50 years of Star Trek.
The New Horizons team, which placed a 29-cent 1991 “Pluto: Not Yet Explored” stamp on board the New Horizons spacecraft, is thrilled at the updated stamp recognizing the mission.
“The New Horizons project is proud to have such an important honor from the U.S. Postal Service,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute. “Since the early 1990s the old, ‘Pluto Not Explored’ stamp served as a rallying cry for many who wanted to mount this historic mission of space exploration. Now that NASA’s New Horizons has accomplished that goal, it’s a wonderful feeling to see these new stamps join others commemorating first explorations of the planets.”
In the upcoming planet series, we’re treated to a color-enhanced Mercury taken by MESSENGER highlighting the planet’s varied terrains. Venus appears in all its naked volcanic glory courtesy of the Magellan probe which mapped the planet using cloud-penetrating radar. Like Mercury, it’s also color-enhanced since it’s impossible to see the surface in visual light even from orbit. Earth and Mars were photographed in natural light with orbiting satellites in tow.
The Hubble Space Telescope photographed Jupiter in infrared light in 2004, capturing a rare triple transit of the moons Ganymede, Io and Callisto. Saturn comes to us from the Cassini probe, still in good health and routinely sending gorgeous images every month of the ringed planet and its moons. Pity the rings had to be trimmed, but it had to be done to keep all the globes close to the same relative size. Hubble took Uranus’ picture in infrared light, while the Neptune close-up was sent by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989.
2016 also marks the 50th anniversary of the television premier of StarTrek, which the post office will commemorate with the new Star Trek Forever stamps. They feature four digital illustrations inspired by the television program: the Starship Enterprise inside the outline of a Starfleet insignia, the silhouette of a crewman in a transporter, the silhouette of the Enterprise from above and the Enterprise inside the outline of the Vulcan salute.
The Global Moon stamp was issued on Feb. 22. You can pre-order the Pluto and planet stamps from USPS.com 30 days before their dedication between May 28 and June 4 at the World Stamp Show in New York. Expect the Star Trek series sometime this summer.
“Fascinating, Captain.” If he were alive today, Leonard Nimoy, who played the half Vulcan-half human Mr. Spock in the Star Trek TV and movies series, would undoubtedly have raised an eyebrow and uttered a signature “fascinating” at the news this week that an asteroid now bears his name.
4864 Nimoy, a mountain-sized rock roughly 6 miles (10 km) across, orbits the Sun once every 3.9 years within the inner part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Vulcan, er Jupiter.
Here’s the announcement from the Minor Planet Center made on June 2:
(4864) Nimoy = 1988 RA5
Discovered 1988 Sept. 2 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory.
Leonard Nimoy (1931–2015) was an American actor, film director and poet. Best known for his portrayal of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer Spock in the original “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent movies, Nimoy wrote two autobiographies:
I Am Not Spock (1975) and I Am Spock (1995). M.P.C. 94384
4864 Nimoy was discovered by Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne on September 2, 1988 and given the provisional designation 1988 RA5. This month, Spock’s “star” doesn’t get any brighter than 16th magnitude as it slowly tracks from Capricornus into Sagittarius in the late night sky. Come mid-July, amateurs with 14-inch or larger telescopes might glimpse it when it brightens to magnitude 15.
Spock – Fascinating!
Though portrayed as logical to a fault, Spock’s chilly exterior hid a heart as big as Jupiter. He was the hero of every nerd, and the perfect foil to Shatner’s Captain Kirk’s emotional excesses. Nimoy’s character showed that command of the facts and rational thinking made one very useful in dangerous and difficult situations. And great to poke fun at.
A few “Best of Spock” moments
While Leonard Nimoy’s name will forever tumble about the asteroid belt, his fictional character got there before him. Or did it? 2309 Mr. Spock (former 1971 QX1) was discovered by James Gibson on August 16, 1971. An outer main belt asteroid about 13 miles (21 km) across and orbiting the Sun every 5.23 years, it’s actually not named for the Star Trek character. Nope. Gibson named it for his cat.
The act prompted the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1985 to ban the use of pet names for asteroids. Aw, come on IAU, where’s your sense of humor? Then again, Nimoy’s Spock might have considered the new rule quite logical.