Bad Astronomy’s Review of the Science of ‘Star Trek’

Today TrekMovie continues our series of reviews with a very special perspective from a guest reviewer. Astronomer and author Philip Plait, who runs the famed Bad Astronomy Blog, presents a review of the new Star Trek movie, from a scientific (and nitpick lover’s) point of view. [note: this review contains major spoilers].

 

Scientific Review of "Star Trek"
by Phillip Plait    [cross-posted at Bad Astronomy]

OK, here’s the deal: I’m a big Trek fan. I watched the original series as a kid and into reruns a bazillion times. I loved the movies, and was thrilled when TNG was on the air. And while I lost it for a while with DS9 and Voyager (and with the exception of the finale, the last season of Enterprise was pretty good, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), I am still a fan.

I was ready to be disappointed with this revision of Trek. But I wasn’t. I loved it. I was very unsure if this would resemble to Star Trek I grew up with, and incredibly, J. J. Abrams, without being a fan, was able to take what made the show Trek — it’s heart, if you will — and bring it up-to-date.

But I am here to review the science of the movie. I won’t worry about warp drive, transporter tech, or time travel; I’ll concentrate on the real stuff. And never fear: I am not going to reveal the overall plot here. I avoided as many spoilers as I could before watching it, and I’m glad I did. It really made the movie more exciting and fun to watch.

But I do have to do what I do, so do it I will. While I won’t reveal the plot, I have to reveal some details to write a review. So:

 RED ALERT! SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD!

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then I suggest evasive maneuvers.

 


SILENT, BUT DEADLY

The Scene:

The USS Kelvin is under attack! Firing weapons of unprecedented power, a Romulan ship is pounding the Federation wessel. We hear explosions, bulkheads torn apart, screams… and then a torpedo rips open the hull, and a crewmember is blown out into space. The camera follows her as she tumbles out, and when we pass through the hull breach into space there is sudden silence.

The Science:

I could kiss J. J. Abrams right on the mouth for this one. In space, without air, there is no way for sound to be transmitted. What we think of as sound is actually a compression and rarefaction (thinning) of a medium of some sort, whether it’s a solid, liquid or gas. Without a medium, there’s nothing to vibrate, and all your sound and fury signifies nothing (c’mon, it’s Trek, there has to be a Bard reference).

Sure, in the scene there’s air rushing out the airlock, but that would expand violently as it leaves the ship, rapidly becoming too thin to transmit sound.

And yeah, we do hear ships whoosh as they go to warp and all that, but that’s what we expect to hear, having evolved in an atmosphere which whooshes when things fly past us. I’d prefer that we hear nothing, but I accept that as a filmmaker’s prerogative to make the audience comfortable.

But I’ll add that for years I have complained about sounds in space, saying that done correctly, making things silent can add drama. That sentiment was proven here; the sudden silence as we leave the ship and fly into space with the doomed crewmember is really eerie and unsettling.

 

VULCAN SKIES

The Scene:

We pan across the alien planet Vulcan, with its blue skies and puffy white clouds.

The Science:

Hey, wait a second! I saw "Amok Time". Vulcan’s sky is red! Well, maybe. Sky color is a difficult topic. The Earth’s sky is blue because the nitrogen molecules in our air take the blue light from the Sun and scatter it every which-way, so we see blue light coming at us no matter where we look in the sky.

Other molecules can change that color — if we had a lot of smog in our air, for example, the sky would look reddish-brown. Methane absorbs red light, again making a planet look blue (which is why Neptune has a — pardon the expression — sky-blue visage). Mars has a lot of airborne dust, making its sky look yellow, or reddish, or even butterscotch colored. Our own sky can change color dramatically depending on the weather or whether you’re looking near the horizon or the zenith.

So maybe there had just been a dust storm before Spock gets all Pon-farr on Kirk’s butt in the original series (or when Spock rejects the Kohlinar ceremony in the first movie). Or maybe it’s a nitpicky detail only a fanboy would gripe about — note that the planet’s color changes in practically every series of the show. But it does give me an excuse to talk about why we have blue skies here on good ol’ Earth.

 

BOILING BLOOD

The Scene:

Kirk and McCoy are on a shuttle about to head up to orbit. McCoy, true to form, gripes about space travel, saying that if there’s a hull breach, "… our blood will boil in 12 seconds."

The Science:

I swear, every movie ever gets this all wrong — the craptacular "Mission to Mars" comes to mind right away. To the immediate point about blood boiling, it wouldn’t happen. The temperature at which a liquid boils depends on the atmospheric pressure; at lower pressures liquids boil at lower temperatures. That’s why there are high-altitude variations for some recipes; water boils at a lower temperature, so you might have to bake something longer to actually cook it (I live in Boulder at an altitude of 1700 meters, so I live this fact every day).

This effect is so strong that in a vacuum, water boils at room temperature! Blood has things dissolved in it, which raises its boiling point, but even with that, at a body temperature of 37 Celsius blood would boil in a vacuum.

But if you’re blown into space, your blood’s not exposed to a vacuum! It’s in a nice air-tight system, your circulatory system. The pressure inside your arteries and veins is kept relatively constant (unless I watch the news or Oprah, and then it skyrockets), so your blood won’t boil.

There are many other nasty effects if you’re exposed to vacuum — sudden decompression of all the air in your lungs and intestines (yeah, you outgas at both ends), the damage to soft tissue after a few minutes as they dehydrate, the exposure to the raw UV light from the Sun, and, of course, dying in about two minutes from hypoxia — but boiling blood ain’t one of ’em. McCoy was training to be a doctor and should’ve known better.

Or maybe he was just whining for emphasis. He is McCoy, after all.

 

SPACE JUMP!

The Scene:

Kirk, Sulu, and Officer Red Shirt (srsly! His suit is red!) jump from a shuttle to attack the mining drill when it’s lowered from the Romulan ship over Earth. Wearing space suits, they fall from orbit, land on the drill, fight the Romulans, and destroy the drill.

The Science:

Well, there’s lots of bad and good science here. Strap in.

First off, something they got right once I thought about it some. The shuttle left Enterprise to go to the Romulan ship. At first I thought both ships were in orbit, but that’s not true! The Romulan ship had lowered the mining drill from above the atmosphere, but it had to be hovering above the ground to do that, not orbiting the planet, or else they wouldn’t be stationary over one spot (true, there is a geosynchronous orbit that keeps you over one spot, but it’s tens of thousands of kilometers over the surface, and the ships were clearly just above Earth’s atmosphere).

So when the trio jump from the shuttle, my first thought was that they’d still be in orbit; to deorbit means they’d need to change their velocity by several km/sec, which is clearly not possible. But they weren’t in orbit, so they just fell. OK, +1 internets for the movie.

They would fall fast. And they did! Their speed was a little less than a kilometer per second, which sounds about right. At their altitude there wouldn’t be much if any air to slow them, so they’d free fall; as they plunged deeper air resistance would slow them down. At first I thought they’d actually burn like meteors, but in reality (ha! Reality!) they weren’t going that fast.

Of course, I have to wonder why Officer Red Shirt waited so long to pull his chute. But then, he was a red shirt.

 


DRILL, BABY, DRILL

The Scene:

Hovering over Vulcan, the Romulan ship lowers a mining drill, which blasts an intense beam into the surface. It drills into the planet’s core, where a "red matter" bomb is injected.

The Science:

Drilling a hole to the center of a planet is not a simple matter! Planets tend to be thousands of kilometers in radius so that’s a heckuva hole. A problem with deep mines is that the pressure of the overlying rocks tends to collapse the hole. A cubic meter of rock weighs in at about 2-3 tons, and there are billions of cubic meters of rock above such a hole. You could try to use a beam weapon to vaporize a hole, but the rock to the side would keep flowing in. You’d never get anywhere.

And assuming Vulcan has a crust floating on a mantle (like Earth does), even if the drill gets through the crust, now you’re trying to drill a hole through a fluid! (In reality, the rock in the mantle is not like a liquid that can flow easily, it’s more like a very thick plastic that flows incredibly slowly. But in the end the effect is the same as with the crust; as material is vaporized more would flow in, making the drill ineffective.) So that doesn’t work well either. I suppose you can get around this by saying Vulcan is an old planet and has solidified all the way down to the core, but you still have the rock pressure problem. For the record, some people claim that Vulcan orbits the star 40 Eridanus A, which is at least as old as the Sun, so it’s possible Vulcan has solidified. But 40 Eri is a triple star system. Where are the other two suns?

Don’t try to retcon a retconner.

 

GOODBYE VULCAN

The Scene:

The Romulans drop a "red matter" bomb into the hole made by the drill. It triggers the formation of a black hole, which collapses the planet and wipes out the Vulcans.

 

The Science:

Um. "Red matter"? OK, I’ll give them that McGuffin. But still, to make a black hole, it takes mass. A lot of it, or a little bit squeezed into a very tiny volume.

If the mass came from the planet itself, there’s a problem: as the mass compresses and falls into the black hole, it gets hot. Really hot. Millions of degrees hot. It emits X-rays and other types of radiation, and would probably pile up outside the event horizon — the Point of No Return — and prevent more matter from falling in. This is what happens when a black hole orbits a star; we can detect those systems due to their incredibly strong emission of X-rays.

Assuming they could overcome that problem (they could invert the decyon field for one, or polarize the transverse array) it would still only create a teeny tiny black hole. If you turned the entire Earth into a black hole it would only be about a centimeter across, the size of a marble. Initially, the red matter black hole would be incredibly small, probably smaller than an atom, and that would make it hard to gobble down enough mass to grow rapidly.

Assuming they could overcome that, and assuming this magic red matter stuff, well then, yeah, they could create a black hole.

Incidentally, the gravitational force you feel from an object depends on two things: the mass of the object, and how far away you are (for a sphere like a planet, you measure from the object’s center). So, weirdly, once Vulcan collapsed into a black hole, the gravity felt by the orbiting ships didn’t change! A lot of people think that black holes have infinitely strong gravity, or they can reach across space and grab stuff. But really, they’re just gravity, and as long as you’re far enough away, you’re OK.

But who knows what happens if you make a [cue creeeeeepy music] RED MATTER black hole. Maybe in those all kinds of weird things can happen, like Firefly was never canceled and the finale of Battlestar made sense. Crazy!

 

DELTA WHEREGA?

The Scene:

On Delta Vega, "our" Spock watches sadly as Vulcan collapses into a black hole.

The Science:

OK, so Delta Vega is no longer the planet home to the dilithium cracking plant from the second Trek pilot. But is it a moon of Vulcan? That’s the only way Spock could have had such a view of Vulcan; even from a nearby planet Vulcan would have been a tiny dot in the sky. We see the Moon as a disk because it’s close, but Venus is the closest planet to Earth (40 million km at perigee, its closest approach to Earth) and it is never more than a barely resolved dot to our eyes. You’d have to be close to a planet, a few hundred thousand kilometers at most, to get the view in the movie.

OK, so maybe it’s a moon. But if so, why is there a lonely outpost on it? In fact, that’s true if Delta Vega is any planet in Vulcan’s system. Why would there be a little-traveled base manned by one guy and one Oompa-Loompa with bad acne so close to one of the home planets of the Federation?

However, I love that in that scene they reference "Admiral Archer’s beagle". Nice touch!


SUPERDUPERNOVA

The Scene:

In the scene where Spock explains the plot to the audience during a mind meld with Kirk, he says a supernova went off that "threatened the galaxy". We see a giant yellow star explode, and it destroys Romulus.

The Science:

That scene physically pained me; I just wrote a book with an entire chapter devoted to the damage supernovae can cause, and the movie pretty much screwed it all up.

First off, supernovae are exploding stars, and are incredibly violent events. They emit trillions of times as much energy as the Sun does, and can outshine entire galaxies. But for all that, the damage they do is local; you have to be within about 50 light years for them to physically hurt a planet. Past that, and they can’t even bruise our fragile ozone layer.

For one to destroy a planet, physically vaporize it, the planet would have to be orbiting the star that explodes! Even from a light year away a supernova can’t wipe out a planet like that. And remember, our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. A supernova is nowhere near strong enough to take out a whole galaxy.

Also, a supernova happens when a very massive star at the end of its life explodes. Stars like this are supergiants that are either red (like Betelgeuse) or blue-white (like Deneb). The star in the movie was yellow. I can’t say that would never happen, but as far as we know, yellow stars can’t blow.

Now, had Abrams called me, I would’ve told him to use a gamma-ray burst, not a supernova. GRBs are like super-supernovae, where instead of the explosion moving outward in a spherical shell, the energy is focused into twin beams of cosmic fury. These Blowtorches of Doom could easily set a plane aflame from even hundreds of light years away, and the special effect for it would’ve been a bazillion times cooler in the movie.

J. J., babe, call me next time!

Incidentally, Spock says he tried to stop the supernova by using red matter to create a black hole to absorb the explosion. That wouldn’t work; in fact in the center of many supernovae the star’s core collapses to a black hole. The outer layers of the stars have so much energy they easily explode outwards even though at the heart of the explosion sits a black hole. So either Spock was mistaken in his calculations (gasp! horror!), he was lying about trying to stop the explosion (hmmm, sequel anyone?), or the writers just screwed up this bit of science.

Place your bets here.

 

TITAN HIDE

The Scene:

On Chekov’s suggestion, the Enterprise hides in Titan’s thick atmosphere, where it’s hidden visually from the Romulan ship, and the magnetic field from Saturn’s rings would disrupt other sensors. With Saturn and its magnificent rings as a dramatic backdrop we see the Enterprise dramatically lift out of the thick reddish air surrounding the moon and dramatically attack the Romulans!

The Science:

Erf. OK, let me say that this scene was inspired by suggestions from none other than Dr. Carolyn Porco, who leads the Cassini spacecraft imaging science team. That’s the probe that’s been orbiting the ringed planet since 2004 and returned some of the most amazing pictures from space ever taken. I chatted with her about this scene, and what she said was scientifically plausible, but it sounds like the special effects guys took some liberties.


First, Titan orbits Saturn in the same plane as the rings do. So from Titan, the rings would appear edge-on (in the image here, the rings are very nearly edge-on and you can see Titan behind them, as well as the tiny moon Epimetheus). The rings are incredibly thin, and would look like nothing more than a line across the sky. In the movie, we see them from well above the ring plane. But I gotta say, I can easily forgive them that mistake; the rings are just plain cool and gorgeous, and showing them as a thin line would have been a sin. Still, they could’ve shown the view from Titan as the Big E lifts out of the air, then we could’ve zoomed along with it up and away from Saturn and Titan, and shown the rings then. That would’ve been cool.

See? In good science there is always better stuff to do for movies.

They did get the color of Titan’s atmosphere correct (again, check the image above); it’s a reddish-yellow from a thick organic haze that is made when the methane in the atmosphere is broken down by sunlight and recombines to form complex molecules. And Titan’s air is very thick; the surface pressure is twice Earth’s! But, like Earth, Titan’s atmosphere gradually thins with height, so it’s not like the Enterprise would suddenly surface when it hits the top. They were clearly going for a "submarine breaching the sea surface" feel. Still, it was pretty cool.


NERO’S CHOICE

The Scene:

During The Final Battle, Spock creates a black hole using red matter that sucks down the Romulan ship. Half-in and half-out of the hole, the Romulan commander says he’d rather die than surrender.

The Science:

Good choice. Because in reality he wouldn’t have one. A choice that is.

The thing about black holes is, they’re small. The gravity far away from one is the same as any object with that mass — if the Sun were to turn into a black hole, we’d still orbit it happy as you please (though it would get cold quickly). But because black holes are small, you can get close to them. And when you get close the gravitational force goes up. A lot.

But here’s the funny thing: a black hole with the mass of, say, a planet would be small, smaller than a golf ball. You could get right up next to it. But gravity gets stronger the closer you get, so if you fell in your feet would be a lot closer than your head. The difference in gravity between your feet and head could be millions of times the Earth’s gravity! You’d be torn apart by this difference in the force (what we call tides). You’d be stretched out in a process astronomers call spaghettification.

So in reality, the Romulan ship would’ve been ripped not just to shreds, but into little tiny bite-sized quantum bits of subatomic particles.

Black holes are not to be trifled with. They really suck.

 

SCOTTY’S CORE BOMB

The Scene:

After The Final Battle, the Enterprise gets too close to the black hole! They’re getting drawn in, and Scotty says that if they eject the warp core and blow it up, the explosion might propel them to safety.

The Science:

Simply put, that won’t work. Sorry Scotty!

On Earth, detonating a bomb creates a shock wave, an expanding wave of pressure as the force from the explosion propagates through the air. In space — wait for it, wait for it… — there’s no air! So you don’t get a shock wave. When the matter and antimatter in the core combine, you get a fierce blast of electromagnetic radiation (fancy science-talk for light) in the form of gamma rays, and an expanding very thin shell of vaporized atoms from the material in the warp core itself.

To propel the Big E to safety, the bomb would have to transfer momentum to the ship. This is like hitting a pool ball with another one; the moving ball has momentum, which it then gives to the other one, causing it to move. Detonating the warp core would generate a lot of light, but only a tiny bit of mass would explode outward, so the momentum transfer would be minimal.

What would really happen is the ship would be vaporized from the massive release of energy. Oops! That would’ve made for a dramatic ending to the movie, but not a terribly satisfying one.


Conclusion:

I’m a nitpicking dork.

Maybe you figured that out on your own. If so, I apologize for only stating it here at the end.

But I actually did really enjoy this movie. Yes, it doesn’t follow canon. But I have news for you: Star Trek never did! It’s incredibly inconsistent, and no matter how much you spin, fold, mutilate, and retcon your way through the series, it contradicts itself. If you are the kind of person who gets mortally offended when Trek defies its own history, then you should really just let it go.

Because this movie rocked.

People were worried about the Hollywoodification of Trek. Well sure, there is a lot more action here, and yes Spock actually has a love interest. But we know that Spock had emotions, and we know that given the right circumstances they would surface. Why accept an angry Spock — which we saw all the time in the original series — but not a lovestruck one?

I didn’t think I’d like the casting, but in fact it worked well. Zoë Saldana’s Uhura is more than merely a phone operator, she’s an accomplished linguist (though her character could’ve been stronger yet). Karl Urban’s McCoy was spot-on, and he even kinda sorta looks like a young DeForest Kelley. Quinto played Spock quite well, and Pine was also good as Kirk; while it wasn’t Shatneresque, I can easily see him as a younger, brassier Kirk (and the womanizing slayed me; the homages to the original series that were overplayed generated a lot of laughs).

The other stuff was great too: the effects (though a little overdone with the panning and complicated explosions) truly were spectacular, as were the direction and the music. I loved the inside jokes, which were in there aplenty but not too many to get tiresome.

I would love to see more movies made like this, or even (egads!) a new series with this cast. There’s a rich history here, and the way the plot was handled there is a rich parallel history, too.

I’d love to see that history unfold boldly once again.

 

More TrekMovie Reviews of Star Trek:

Anthony Pascale’s [spoiler free]

Mark Altman’s [minor spoilers]

Jeff Bond’s [spoilers]

 

 

Star Trek image credits: Paramount Pictures. Saturn/Titan images credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. GRB image credit: Dana Berry, Skyworks Digital. Thanks to Carolyn Porco and Anthony Pascale for interesting conversations that helped this review, though of course I’m responsible for its content.

 

 

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You are a nitpicking dork.
But an excellent researcher!
;))

“I’m a nitpicking dork.”

Greatest line in the history of reviews.

Thanks for taking the time for this article. It was great!

The best nitpicking researcher with awesome education.

phil, re: SUPERDUPERNOVA

the countdown comic book goes into more detail about the science of the threat to the galaxy. the supernova of the super giant yellow star caused a chain reaction of more supernovas. Romulas was evaporated by its own star going supernova during its main sequence because of the supernova of the super giant yellow star.

…something about red matter…

yes, that is even worse science, right? the time required for supernovas to travel across the galaxy cannot exceed c, so there would be many thousands of years forewarning, not weeks as stated in the comic.

…maybe red matter can solve this…

yea, they played fast and loose with the science here.

We may all be nitpicking dorks here *raises hand* but indeed identifying the fact that the movie rocked anyway, is the most important part. Cheers! Great review.

What a great article, thanks so much. As much as I love, absolutely love this movie, the sloppy science in the fiction did nag at me. The problem with Delta Vega being a moon is that the computer tells Kirk he’s on an “M-Class planet.” I can accept it’s not the DV we know, but the concept of Spock Prime watching from DV is hard to swallow. The ” supernova that threatened the galaxy” and ultimately destroys Romulus really bugged me ever since it was worded like that in “Countdown”. I was hoping it was just bad comic book writers, but it was bad Bob and Alex (bad, guys, bad!). It just bugs me when writers confuse the terms solar system/galaxy/universe, or don’t realize that the effects of any stellar event would take YEARS to reach another system at best. But I DO like your GRB solution… that’s what I’ll use to retcon this!

Still….. GREAT MOVIE!

Great overview… though for most of us, yeah, the “rule of cool” trumps the hard science. This IS Trek, after all. As for the blood boiling, I tend to agree with theory 2 — McCoy seemingly did NOT want to go into space (even after Kirk reminded him that it’s part of the job title for a STARfleet…) and so was grasping at any straw for justification.

hey, this new Star Trek movie is set in an alternative universe.
there are alternative natural laws!
so the did everything right.

Well as we saw in The Motion Picture, Vulcan had two smaller heavenly bodies in the sky. As it was stated by Spock in TOS that Vulcan has no Moon, it has been speculated that these were planetoids. Seems to resolved the issue. One could be Delta Vega. As to why there is a Starfleet station there, perhaps in this reality that is as close as they will let Starfleet come or it served some purpose as an outpost or something.

JMN

All the orciverse’s a stage…

excellent text, Phil,
with the perfect Trek formula mix of science and humor.
10/10

I saw the movie twice on Friday. I know… get a life, right? But I agree with you, it was great fun. I’m no physicist, but I did wonder about how accurate some of the scenes were. I thought they would burn up in the free fall, so now I’m happy that it wasn’t too absurd. The dead silence during the fall, with only sounds of respiration was dramatic. JJ paying homage to Clarke’s 2001 I suppose?

All the other stuff that was so far off base doesn’t matter as long as the movie was fun to watch, and man… it IS!

Thanks for the interesting read on the real science. I hope JJ does call you next time… some of the scenes you described would have been better indeed… and more real.
In any case, Star Trek is back on the map.

I believe that “supernova threatening the galaxy” was meant metaphorically. Like in “if Romulus gets destroyed, the Romulans will be very pissed”.

That was a very objectified review. I enjoyed reading it.

6

Yeah I loved the movie, but damn, this had some of the WORST science I’ve seen in Trek in a long while.

Earlier Trek definitely stretched things, but at least everything was usually explained in a fairly plausible and consistent way, and had some kind of INTERNAL logic.

I mean seriously, if they wanted to have Spock watch the destruction of Vulcan in person, why not just say he was marooned on one of Vulcan’s moons??? It’s not that hard.

I’m just amazed at how little the writers and Abrams seemed to think these basic things through.

Thanks, great analysis.

By the way, the BBC News Channel’s Mark Kermode is on Film 24 saying that Star Trek is great fun and we should all go and watch it.

I’m going again in about…. an hour. Mainly because it went by so damned fast when I saw it on Thursday.

Agree about Delta Vega. I’m trying to remember if the Enterprise warped out of Vulcan orbit before reaching DV, because it CANNOT be more than a few hundred thousand km from Vulcan. When Spock watches from the surface of DV, the disc of Vulcan appears very large in the sky. The distance must be comparable to – or less than – the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
Not sure I can figure out what Porco did on this movie, except suggest a scene and then not see that it was executed properly.

Bah! .. we watch movies to be entertained .. not educated :P If I had wanted schooling I’d have gone to school. Trek Rocks!!

Excellent review. :)

[Trek Technobabble Dork] Hey.. what’s the matter with Red Matter? It can after all cause some kind of strange subspace-realspace effect that causes all that commotion, including supermassive black holes and all that jazz. Same thing goes for the Hobus Supernova. [/Trek Technobabble Dork]

Film was fun. Great fun. Super fun. The audience cheered at the credits, they LOVED it! :)

A nit-picking dork you may be, dude, but you seem to really enjoy the movie and that’s really all that matters. We know that Star Trek has tried to emulate real scientific theory to the best of it’s ability. But sometimes, for storymaking purposes, the idea of something working more dramatically than it would in reality (i.e. your analysis of Scotty’s escape plan for the Enterprise) is more exciting.

I enjoyed reading your analysis of the science that the movie offered. Thanks!

“Spock gets all Pon-farr on Kirk’s butt”

can people see the humor in that line.

Just remember one thing. It’s just a movie!!!

Interesting science perspectives, but then again one must always suspend science in ‘science fiction’ unless they’re reading Robert Forward or the ilk. As this is an astronomical review, I’ll apply the basic geological perspective we all got in junior high to bear upon the cinematic simulation of the destruction of planet Vulcan. A key consideration is that planets are cool and solid only on the outside, and are liqueous and superheated on the inside. This kind of ‘liquid’ is similar to fresh lava out of an erupting volcano; you’ll notice that it is bright orange. If you’ve ever seen movies of actual volcanoes with flying blobs of orange molten rock, that’s what 75% of a planet’s interior looks like. An exploding planet would have a huge number of these glowing orange blobs. Thus, every cinematic depiction of an exploding/imploding planet to date has been inaccurate. A planet in a G-sequence star that is capable of sustaining life within the humanoid range (not xeno-extreme lifeforms) would generally be 90% liquid/molten solids in mass and volume. Thus, when it is destroyed, the planet’s external lithosphere (crust and peripheral mantle) would visibly fragment, creating the ‘peeling off’ or ‘breakage’ effects commonly depicted in cinema. But the interior aesthenosphere (upper mantle) is plastic and ductile, with completely different properties than the crust. In space, this superheated section would have many properties similar to a lava lamp, with chunky/globular ejecta similar to plutonic diapir. The sudden exposure to space vacuum will not ‘instant freeze’ these… Read more »
Trek-Inspired Astrophysicophile
“On Earth, detonating a bomb creates a shock wave, an expanding wave of pressure as the force from the explosion propagates through the air. In space — wait for it, wait for it… — there’s no air! So you don’t get a shock wave. When the matter and antimatter in the core combine, you get a fierce blast of electromagnetic radiation (fancy science-talk for light) in the form of gamma rays, and an expanding very thin shell of vaporized atoms from the material in the warp core itself. To propel the Big E to safety, the bomb would have to transfer momentum to the ship. This is like hitting a pool ball with another one; the moving ball has momentum, which it then gives to the other one, causing it to move. Detonating the warp core would generate a lot of light, but only a tiny bit of mass would explode outward, so the momentum transfer would be minimal. What would really happen is the ship would be vaporized from the massive release of energy.” Thank you, Phil, for your article. The matter and antimatter in the warp core is supposed to be in the form of deuterium and antideuterium. So the bomb should also have produced other kinds of particles that could have reached the Enterprise, albeit particles of decay, particles like electrons and neutrinos. However, these particles would not have helped very much either. Since the warp core probably did not have humungous amounts of deuterium and antideuterium… Read more »

This is kinda off topic, but when Checkov transported Kirk and Sulu in free-fall, I couldn’t help but wonder… wouldn’t that be just as *fatal* as leaving them be? Once they’ve rematerialized, what happens to all that kinetic energy they’ve built up?

On a physics sidenote: ILM actually created new effects for the explosions in space, in which the fire is sucked back pretty fast back into the ship’s hull after an impact, not blooming out into the vacuum as in earlier movies.

To #24…

I’d say the transporter beam “caught” them and absorbed the effect. When they rematerialized on the transporter pad it placed them just above the floor…as a dramatic effect on the filmmaker’s part.

The Transporter has biofilters, and inertia dampers too!

I’ve been a big fan of Bad Astronomy for years now, and it was great to read Phil Plait on this site as well! Wonderful review!

Great review!
Concerning Vulcan’s sky: In ENT: Strange New World T’Pol remarked that the sky on Vulcan is blue “sometimes”. Suggesting that red is the normal color, which was always seen through the Vulcan Trilogy in Season 4.

My question is how the Narada came to confront Spock Prime in the Prime Universe immediately after the black hole formed from the supernova. (Remember that the Narada was sucked into the black hole along with the Jellyfish shortly afterward; this is how the two ships came to be 25 years apart.) Had the Narada been stalking Spock, or was some kind of time travel involved there, too? If the supernova had just exploded when the Narada first encountered the Jellyfish, how could Nero have so quickly decided to convert his oil rig into a weapon of planetary destruction? Exactly how much time did Nero have to stew over the death of his wife, if the supernova had just exploded (as it must have for Spock to be able to contain it within a reasonable length of time from the time he had originally planned to do so)?

Help, please?

BTW, saw the movie again last evening, and it was fantastic (again).

This was a COOL article! Thanks for the info and BTW-I LOVED the flick!!!

22, quite interesting. However, shouldn’t the mass of the planet still exist, albeit in the black hole itself? The black hole — and I realize Dr. Plait has mentioned the problem with aggregation of mass — should, as depicted in the movie, still have the mass of the planet within it. I am informed by reading various sources that the gravitational pull of a black hole is not particularly immense — only that it is infinite (or nearly so) very close to its “surface.” That is, the event horizon exists for a black hole as an implication or manifestation of the extreme nature of the curvature of spacetime close to the black hole itself, but this wouldn’t mean that objects farther away from the black hole would experience extraordinary gravitational pull. As i recall reading, a starship orbiting a black hole from a suitable distance would not necessary experience any effect (absent tidal effects) different from that experienced from orbitng a body of the same mass. (As an aside, the extreme curvature of spacetime caused by the (obviously fictional) black hole created as a result of the aggregation of mass as small as a terrestrial-type (or “rocky”) planet, of the kind Vulcan appears to be, would seem to explain why the Narada was destroyed by the black hole rather than simply transported into another point in spacetime through some kind of presumed wormhole, as stated in the movie to have occurred during the Horus event. The Horus event involved a… Read more »

You didn’t mention the recoil on the phasers.

Well maybe watch the movie again. Got some chronology all wrong. The whole part of spacediving to the platform was over Vulcan not above Earth and the platform didn’t fall into the San Francisco Bay as a result of them firing at, but because of young Spock using the Jellyfish – again much later. The tether was used TWICE remember? Sulu and Kirk were too late with their sabotage, thus the Red Matter Bomb was dropped and Vulcan imploded. I’m always bummed out when an exploding planet just consists of “dirt” which was also the case with Meridian III in Generations, remember that one? I guess the closest-to-the-truth depiction we ever saw was actually in “Enterprise” were the Xindi were able to reach the Earth in time before the NX-01 and actually used their sphere. Vulcan simply can not be a completely “solidified” planet, bec. every habitable world, like Earth, needs a generator for a magnetic field, to keep out cosmic radiation. Without a liquid rotating outer core the planet would be inhabitable soon. Like Mars. Other than that: The two companion stars to 40 Eridani A are actually two dwarfs which would appear on a planet in the system’s green zone (like Vulcan) as bright stars only, they are on orbits too far out, small and dim to really be seen as “suns” on Vulcan. See the Wikipedia entry for 40 Eri – something all of the ARG-players did and know about. Delta Vega is supposed to be a… Read more »

Okay, so that’s the astronomy. What about the biology? The monsters on Delta Vega? ;)
And are centaurian slugs related to the Conspiracy parasites from TNG?

22, I meant to say that the mass of the planet still existed, and therefore the gravitational effect of that mass would still exist, as well. This was to address the question of whether there would be substantial changes as noted in your statement, “Also the ships would be displaced simply by the removal of the interior’s electromagnetic field; this would occur even without a black hole, because the ‘gravity’ created by the planet would cease to exist.”

Further, I am unclear as to whether you meant to say that the planet’s electromagnetic field sustained an effect on orbiting ships, as it would appear to me, a layman, that orbits are determined by gravity rather than electromagnetic fields. (Naturally, this would not be so strange to me if by the reference to EM fields one intends to include (theoretical) gravitons, but I am unsure if this is so.) I tend to see gravity as the curvature of spacetime and therefore do not associate it with EM fields.

Sorry for the repeated postings, but I just realized a major mistake in my own postings. I referenced, “(As an aside, the extreme curvature of spacetime caused by the (obviously fictional) black hole created as a result of the aggregation of mass as small as a terrestrial-type (or “rocky”) planet, of the kind Vulcan appears to be, would seem to explain why the Narada was destroyed by the black hole rather than simply transported into another point in spacetime through some kind of presumed wormhole, as stated in the movie to have occurred during the Horus event. The Horus event involved a far larger mass — a star capable of going supernova. The tidal effects would have been substantially less at various points because the mass of the Horus black hole would have been that much greater.)” This was the result of a misremembering of the movie that I just realized moments ago. The destruction of the Narada was caused by the creation of the black hole within the Narada itself, and not as a result of the destruction of Vulcan (or any other planet). This, interestingly, raises the question of whether the gravitational pull of the Narada black hole would be sufficient to affect the Enterprise, and why this would be so, if the Narada itself in its pre-BH form wouldn’t. (Even a ship several miles long would have negligible gravity.) Perhaps it was the tidal effect of the Narada BH, or some kind of “movie magic” effect of… Read more »

@37…

Sorry, Off topic Rick, but “Perhaps it was the tidal effect of the Narada BH, or some kind of “movie magic” effect of red matter-induced BH’s.” is awfully funny when you speak german ;))

38, I was once told that “Canadian Mist” whisky was hiliarious for similar reasons! :-)

@39…

haha, exactly.
Let’s just say that in Germany BH’s are used to fight gravity…

I can’t forgive JJ for not making the sky red on Vulcan, it was a no-brainer, but I’ll go anyway, begrudgingly… and laugh and cry and get goose-bumos.. but when I see no red sky I’ll inwardly protest.

Thanks for the great write up. It brings back memories of the astronomy classes I took a couple of times as an undergrad. I love the term “spaghettification” because that’s pretty much what it would be like! It’s fun when science has a sort of dry sense of humor about things like that.

I think that the explanation for Spock having seen the Vulcan destruction wasn’t Delta Vega be a near moon or planet, but that scene was an holographic representation of the earlier Vulcan destruction made by Nero to torment Spock.

us nitpicking dorks are in good company.

cant wait for the next movie, and a new series would be great.

If you liked this review you really should star following his [the bad astronomer] blog. It’s really one of the best on the net.

Delta Vega bugs me.

The altered timeline (or Alternate Reality) need not match the prime timeline in all respects. Assuming that the “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum physics is correct, the Alternate Reality could be different in an number of ways, and not just in the ways affected by Nero’s temporal intrusion.

There is a vision of Alternate Reality that seems promoted in connection with this movie that specifically states that this is that timeline that is similar in all respects to the prime timeline, with the sole exceptions being those events in any way caused, directly or not, by Nero’s and Spock’s actions, or the events they are associated with. However, if there are, in fact, an almost infinite number of timelines, this particular Alternate Reality could be one in which not only such exceptions, but other differences, are manifest. Such differences could also explain why Kirk (Alternate) looks like Chris Pine rather than William Shatner. In fact, if we were to take this new movie to be an exact historical record, such an altered reality (one in which there are non-Nero/Spock created differences) would be the only logical explanation for such changes.

The existence of various kinds of near-parallel, as well as near-exact parallel, universes, and “mirror” universes, is well hinted at or laid out in several Trek episodes (e.g., “Parallels,” (TNG)).

Such a different universe could explain the Delta Vega moon/planet thing.

Mr. "There are always possibilities"

This was extremely educational!

I always enjoy the “Bad Astronomy” website.

Here’s my one comment.

When Spock was “looking” at the destruction of Vulcan on Delta Vega, I did not get the impression he was looking at an organic image, like looking up at our moon in the afternoon sky. Knowing that Delta Vega is in another system, I thought that it was a projection of some sort set up by Nero in order for Spock to “feel his pain”. Also, now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I was thinking that as it was told as a narrative in “Flashback” it was simply an artistic representation, not wedded to how Spock actually viewed the destruction.

Oh, well, my two cents for what its worth!

Live Long and Prosper, and Boldy Go!

Of course, you’re assuming there is only 1 Delta Vega.

How many Springfield’s are there in the U.S.?

As a follow-on to 47, there would be some puzzlement as to why Spock Prime would recognize Chris Pine’s Kirk as a young Kirk if what I said is taken to be an assumption. I chalk that up to either “movie magic,” or the fact that Spock, in his wisdom, was perceptive enough to recognize Kirk despite physiognomic differences.

Montgomery Scott, of course, could have given himself simply by his accent.

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