Exclusive Interview With Carolyn Porco – Star Trek’s New Science Advisor

It was announced today that Carolyn Porco, the leader of the Imaging Science team on NASA’S Cassini mission at Saturn, has accepted an invitation from Star Trek director/producer, J.J. Abrams, to join the Star Trek production crew as a consultant on planetary science and imagery. Porco spoke exclusively with TrekMovie.com about her role bringing science to the Star Trek film (and the fans).

Porco’s role in the new Star Trek film will be to help the team artistically show the reality and beauty of space, but this isn’t her first go around. She is a frequent commentator on science, astronomy, and space exploration for television, radio, and print media. She served as a consultant on the Jodi Foster movie Contact  and the A&E television special on the 25th anniversary of the Voyager mission, “Cosmic Journey.” Porco was especially well suited for the Voyager show because she played a prominent role in the Voyager mission.

Porco is highly recognized in her field. She has an asteroid named in her honor, was named ‘one of 18 scientific leaders of the 21st century’ by the London Times and was the recipient of the 2008 Isaac Asimov Science Award. Much of Porco’s current focus is as the director of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. CICLOPS is the center of uplink and downlink flight operations for the Cassini imaging experiment, and the place where Cassini images are processed for release to the public. Bringing space imagery to the public has been a passion of Porco’s and that is how she garnered the attention of Star Trek’s director. 

Abrams, Guyett and Bormanis on Porco
Carolyn Porco came to the attention of Star Trek director JJ Abrams at the TED conference in 2007 where they both spoke. Abrams was impressed with Porco and in the release Abrams states why he felt she was the right person to help guide the team, saying:

Carolyn and her team have produced images that are simply stunning. I’m thrilled that she will help guide our production in creating an authentic vision of space, one that immerses our audience in a visual experience as awe-inspiring as what Carolyn’s cameras have captured.

Porco will be working directly with Roger Guyett, the film’s supervisor for visual effects (who recently popped in to the online chat with fans here at TrekMovie.com). In the release Guyett, an ILM vet of films such as “Star Wars: Episode III”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, “Mission: Impossible III”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”, had this to say about  Porco

Everybody is very excited about Carolyn’s involvement in the film. Her incredible knowledge and expertise is obviously something we’re going to tap into. And the breathtaking imagery that she brings to the collaboration will inspire us all to create some awesome images for our movie!

Dr. Porco joins a long line of science advisors who have helped guide the Trek franchise since the beginning. The most recent advisor Andre Bormanis thinks that Abrams couldn’t have made a better choice, telling TrekMovie.com:

I have known Carolyn from many years, beginning when we were both at the University of Arizona. I think she’s a great choice for the movie. Not only is she one of the world’s top planetary scientists, but she has a wonderful artistic sensibility, which is rare among scientists but indispensable for the visually- powerful storytelling that’s always been a hallmark of Star Trek.


Porco at TED


Porco talks to TrekMovie.com

Porco knows Trek, but isn’t necessarily ‘a Trekkie,’ saying:

I couldn’t tell you the year Kirk was born, but I am part of the original crowd. I was young when it was first on and I watched the original Star Trek when it was on in the 60s. And I’ve checked in every once in a while with the The Next Generation series and I liked that very much. I’ve also seen the best of the previous ten movies.

Porco hasn’t started working on the Trek project yet, but she expects it to be different

I have a feeling from everything I have seen and heard, that this Star Trek production is going to be very different.

So how realistic will the film be? Trek films have always taken liberties with the look of space, especially in the case of having space a lot brighter than it really is. Porco feels that the team will make things as accurate as possible, but points out that, in the case of lighting, there is no choice, saying….

We even have to do this with our pictures on the [Cassini] website. You have no trouble seeing any of those objects, we have to put it on a website so you can see it with your eyes. But if we were really to show it, literally the way it would look if you were there in space, it would be a hundred times less bright. Because the sunlight at Saturn is a hundred times less bright.  So there are circumstances just to do with practicalities that right out of the gate demand you violate some rule. So of course to bring reality onto a two dimensional screen you have to violate it to some degree. That is just the way it goes. There have been in Hollywood movies, there have been violations far more extreme than that. From what I have seen so far I think that this production crew is going to reach farther in trying to make it as accurate as possible.

So is there going to be sound in space?

Ahh [laughs] I can’t say anything more more because I don’t know, but those are the kind of issues that are probably going to be debated…You know 2001 is, in my opinion, the best science-fiction film ever made and it didn’t have any sound in space. As I understand it, [director Stanley] Kubrick went into debt making that film and making it as scientifically accurate as possible. I must have seen that film like fifteen or twenty-five times…But that film didn’t do all that great and was more of a cult film….So you might use the argument that not having sound in space was not a very financially good decision.  

Porco will not be at work on the Trek project for a while (likely when the go into post-production). So for now she is focusing on her day job and like a real life Starship captain, Porco and her team are out there (via Cassini) seeking out strange new worlds (and maybe even new life forms). Right now she is very excited by Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. Her team recently discovered geysers which may mean that there could be more to be found. Porco effuses about the discovery:

It has water, heat and simple organic materials! It has all the basic ingredients for being another habitable zone. The Holy Grail of planetary science is to find other environments in our solar system that might be conducive to the origins of life.

In a month Cassini will be doing a flyby of Enceladus and so expect more from Porco and her team then. TrekMovie.com will be sure to keep you all up to date on Porco and Cassini in our regular ‘Science Friday‘ column.

Bringing science to the fans
As mentioned before, Carolyn Porco has made it her mission to bring imagery from space science to the public. She hopes to help raise awareness of science and spark discussions of science with the public. She has recently created a forum to do that at her company website (Diamond Sky Productions), you can visit the forum HERE. Carolyn has started a new post about an interesting debate she recently participated in titled “Science and the Public Sphere: Getting out the Truth – A Media Roundtable” (with Michael Lemonick, Robert Krulwich, Shirley Jackson, Lawrence Krauss, Jim Lehrer, Mike Turner, and Walter Isaacson). The topic and link to video are available HERE

Eclipse at Saturn…one of the amazing images available at CICLOPS


More links For Carolyn Porco:
Wikipedia Page
Cassini (NASA)
Diamond Sky Productions
CICLOPS (Cassini imagery site)


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Yeah! Carolyn Porco is great!

Very nice!

Cool I want to be a Science Advisor

*wants her job*

I’m sorry, but unless the planets look like the ones in TOS, the new movie won’t be canon. They must look like painted balls.

I just had to say it, sorry. :) I for one think you can’t beat the beauty of creation (and I did say “creation”) and there’s a lot more to see in space than stars. I hope they capture some of that majesty. The last movie to do that was “Contact” which did a good job of the awe-inspiring vistas out there. And the opening credit of Superman Returns was also cool.

So, bring it on!

This is really awesome. As has been endlessly pointed out on these fora, there are innumerable downsides to this project, but the one thing it really has going for it is the potential to bring so much about what we’ve loved in this franchise up to a whole new level.

A film based on TOS which will really attempt to adhere to what’s currently known to 21st century science, rather than merely (as has so often been the case before) paying lip service to the idea? That’s almost worth the price of this ‘reimagining’ all by itself.

There’s been a lot of talk here about making the new movie more “real” and “gritty”. Forget the “gritty”, Rodenberry’s future was more optomistic. However I like this “real”. I want to see this movie and feel like I am there in space too!

I think a good compromise between realism and stylisation, like TOS-R, is the best course. But however way they do it, I think the film will be good. In fact, I know it will be.

They may be doing the sets, ship design, and amount of “space realism” differently than I (or James Cawley) would, but I really look forward to the film nonetheless.

7 – Amen to that. I LOVE the remade BSG, one of my favourite shows.

However, Gritty is not what Star Trek is about.

Realism is good. Make it more believable and plausible, and it makes it easier to imagine reaching such a future.

Hello to all you Star Trek fans,

I’m of course new to all this, but I’d love to know what Michael Hall means by “there are innumerable downsides to this project”. What are they?

And as Anthony pointed out, Diamond Sky Productions has set up a forum for discussion of topics related to science and the public, be they related to journalism, movies, TV …. whatever. Please feel free to drop by and record your thoughts there! I’d love to hear them too.

Carolyn Porco

As much as I would love to see silence in space, I am certain that there will be sound and the like, mainly because people expect sound effects these days.

I’d love to see a Star Trek film that was accurate in its portrayl of space, but in that instance, I would probably wind up being one of six people in the theater.

A few thoughts, though, that always irked me about space-combat in Star Trek

1) Phasers travel at lightspeed. Using them at warp 7 makes no sense.

2) If you are going to use phasers, however, at warp 7, you have to have an explanation – something like travelling in hyperspace, where you can cheat your way out of the laws of physics.

3) Herky-Jerky movements of starships with mass are absolutely unrealistic. The space shuttle takes 2 minutes to do a 360 degree flip (the RPM Manueuver completed these days in order to examine the orbiter for TPS damage). The Enterprise is FAR more massive than the shuttle.

4) Developing some hard and fast ‘universal rules and laws’ can add drama. If we always know it takes 1 hour for a subspace communication to travel 1 parsec, then we’ll know just how long it takes to get an answer… and it will be consistent, thus forcing the crew into a situation that will force them to act without hearing back.

Just some rambling thoughts on the Science of Trek.

Like Porco, I count 2001 as my favorite space movie of all time… so she definately has that going for her in my book.


10: Carolyn Porco –

I think that Michael Hall in post 6 is commenting on things that some Star Trek fans are concerned about with the film, specifically the view that too many things are going to be changed from what has already been shown (which most Trekkers refer to as ‘canon’) in order to suit J.J. Abrams’ (and the entire writing/production crew’s) view of the Star Trek universe.

Glad to see you here!


PS – Did you find a Stargate on Iapetus? (Fans of the novel version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will know what I am talking about)

Hmm- does scientific accuracy extend to Orion Slave Girls? I’m happy they are bringing in a scientific voice, but please make sure the fiction is also well-done. Too much realism= Enterprise TV Series= Zzzzzzzzz.

I’m a student of biology and was brought to science by Trek :D

Carolyn thanks for stopping by :-)
I think JJ Abrams found the right person for the job.

With the attention to detail that the production team is showing I’m looking forward to the new movie more then ever.

Awesome news! Now bring in futurist and quantum physicist Michio Kaku! Give him a cameo!

#10 Greetings Carolyn –
Love the Cassini Project work and am lucky enough to have my signature aboard her (it was a NASA promotion – – Patrick Stewart’s is aboard as well as thousands of others). Really feel confident with you aboard the next Trek film.

Also, a tip for those interested in the heavens – – try visiting the ‘NASA Photo of the Day’ every day. Cassini gets a lot of coverage there as well:

Star Trek has taken sort of a hit nowadays with the idea that too much tech was made up too easily… So and so fixing this and that because of babble babble babble.. but one got the sense that there wasn’t much fact behind it.. more fiction than science.. I for one am glad to hear that a little more seriousness is going into this movie .. and it sounds like Porco will be a nice addition to the team..

Though I loathe loathe not being able to hear all those cool sound effects (in space)..


…because CONTACT was one of the most BEAUTIFUL sci-fi movies ever, image-wise. Ranks right up there with 2001 and yes, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.

Too many science-fiction films go for “realism” above all else. Let’s bring back some mystery, awe and beauty to STAR TREK! Can’t wait to see what they come up with!

#18. Ugh I made the Shaft grammer mistake! Can you find it?

#5 –

Thanks for mentioning SUPERMAN RETURNS! That’s another recent film that literally took my breath away, in terms of special effects and imagery. Yeah, the film was kind of lackluster, but it certainly was beautiful to look at! Some real IMAGINATION went into that one.

Nice article, and Carolyn will be following in the footsteps of Asimov (TMP) which was the only other Trek film to have a scientific advisor? (Correct me if I’m wrong, and I KNOW you will…)

I do like that she understands the difference between the kind of awesome coolness of no sound in space that purists like, but that the whole roar of the Star Destroyer overhead and blowing the speakers off the wall thing is just so much more… dramatic!

Now if she can only persuade JJ that Orange Bridge Rails are a scientific certainty in the 23rd Century….

Saw this at space.com today, that’s pretty cool.

I’m always very amused by the whole “sound-in-space”/scientific accuracy question when it comes to media science fiction.

For me, the question is very easily settled.

When someone tells me that there’s no sound in space — and that, therefore, any science-fiction entertainment depicting the travelling of sound waves through a vacuum is wrong, bad, invalid, insulting to the intelligence and in all other possible ways lame and stinky — I remind him that, as far as we know, there aren’t any starships, inhabited planets, sentient alien lifeforms, non-sentient alien life forms, or gigantic hooting beer cans with the ability to communicate with humpback whales, either.

Tends to end the conversation.

I’d be happy if she could convince JJ & Co. that assembilng that much of the ship on the ground is not a good idea.

Oh… and while I’m on the subject… when people cry that the original Enterprise wasn’t built on a planet’s surface, i tend to agree…

It was built in a woodworking shop. :)

Cool news. Welcome to the world of Trekkies, Carolyn Porco. God help you! ;)

#18, #20
Ummm, lemme see. Could it be lack of capitalization? How about the big run-on sentence sprinkled with partial elipses ( the ..’s)? How about the last statement being a sentence fragment? No? Okay I’m out of guesses. :D I pretty much agree with what you were saying, though.

I totally agree: Contact was visually stunning. I’d love to see imagery like that in the new film.

i know i feel better about the new movie knowing that the science is being handled by a very capable person. congratulations, carolyn!

Yay for real science! I have been so excited to see the latest data coming from Cassini, the pictures to date have been spectacular.

I’m glad to hear this. I always thought the series and the movies just didn’t portray space as it actually looked, globular clusters, nebula, etc. And don’t tell me about the nebula in STII! LOL!


…THE BLACK HOLE (1979) and ENEMY MINE (1985). Pretty much forgotten by the public at large, and mostly (rightfully) derided by most sci-fi fans, they’re still awesome to LOOK at. Great, old-time sci-fi pulp imagery in these two flicks!.

Great article! But I’m wondering when Anthony ever sleeps. ;-)

And wonderful addition to the Star Trek team! Welcome Carolyn.


On the other side of the coin, I think the STAR WARS Prequels suffer GREATLY from the “everything and the kitchen sink, too” mentality of George Lucas. Those films are WAAAY too cluttered for their own good.

Abrams & Porco & Company: Please try to keep the visuals SIMPLE, but arresting!

#32 Arrr.. didn’t ye just have a nervous breakdown over the weekend? That STII was lovely to look out- spooky- but lightning? and flickering lights? I know… but still helped make the movie great.

Which brings me to my point- real science srupously shown will not bring in the movie audience… ala the cult film 2001 as pointed out above…

Adventure needs color, light, sound…

But, yon Star Trek has gone hand in hand with science… from technophobe to technobabble, from cellular phone and ipod which be inspired from Trek… to ideas of non-invasive surgery…

But space should be bonny… let thar be light… and let it be “based on a true story” to maybe inspire would-be anstronomers…

arrrr….when can I get me transporter please? Use it to beam out me beer by-product so I dunna have ta get up during a Beckham match…

Dr. Porco, as another former member of the LPL family (it’s the Planetary Science Department at the University of Arizona for those not in the know), I think it’s exciting that you are involved not only in the new Star Trek movie, but also one of the pioneers in our early adventures into the Final Frontier (sorry, but I tried to make that as corny as possible, did it work?).

Seriously though, this is great news. One of the things that made ST:TOS work was the fact that they had real science fiction writers and NASA scientists involved. Glad to see the tradition is still alive.

(Now if only I can get back into working in planetary sciences that would be great. Just finishing the olde Master’s degree first…)

-Geoffrey McStroul

“gigantic hooting beer cans with the ability to communicate with humpback whales”

Near choked to death at that comment!

Trek has always had sound in space so lets not change it. All the BSG fans will start calling it a rip off.
And I like the sound of Phasers and Photon torpedos!
I mean how good would the Wrath have Khan been with sound for the space battles?

I mean WITHOUT sound

#24 tis better than gossip

Not expecting a planetarium view (“this is how tha stars look if you be on Antares; OR being in a globular cluster brightens your sky”) but still,
good sign here for that ruff and tumble realism… as I’d like ta distill my drunken spiel above to it’s point:

space should be bonny… let thar be light… and let the stars in this film be “based on a true story” to mayhaps inspire would-be astro-nomers…

good starry night to ye all now…

#10: Carolyn, your link does not work.


Welcome aboard! Having your participation harkens back to the likes of NASA’s advisor Jesco Van Puttkamer for “Star Trek – The Motion Picture.” or that of Isaac Asimov, also for the first movie.

I, like you, have a great affinity for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I think, even though the film is 40 years old, it is the gold standard that all science fiction films want to be… and should be measured by.

Your participation in the film, to me, portends great promise!

I swear, every time I read a new post as to what JJ Abrams has planned I get more and more excited! He seems to be doing everything right!

I saw Carolyn Porco speak at Spacefest in Mesa, AZ last August. Really awe inspiring speaker and the images she showed us were amazing. This film is going to rock! Glad they are including the scientific community!!

Dear Ms. Porco,

I hope there is some beauty to be found which will be portrayed in this film that can set it apart from every other SciFi film that has come these last 20+ years. One thing Trek has done has been to show viewers the beauty of Earth as she looks from space. Hopefully you can give the director a perspective on the rest, looking out.

Another primo interview by the TrekMovie team. Thanks guys! Wonderful stuff.

The adventure continues…..

Regarding sound in space, just mount the microphone on the hull of the ship instead of on the camera. A vacuum doesn’t conduct sound, but a big metal starship does. The volume changes and doppler effects as the ships fly past the camera can be explained as post-processing to add spatial cues to the sound. In this manner, the sounds of space are no less realistic than the soundtracks of most “real” movies; such soundtracks are usually constructed long after the actual photography and don’t always reflect the sounds one would have heard on scene during principal photography. Why should Trek be held to a higher standard?

Re: 11, it’s a longstanding convention in Trek that the subspace fields used in impulse and warp drive lower the “apparent mass” of the starship so it can accelerate from 0 to 0.6c in no time flat, without carrying a gobsmackingly huge store of propellant. Structural integrity fields, inertial dampeners, and other such [TECH] keep the whole thing from flying apart into duranium shards and specks of chunky salsa during maneuvers. You could throw that conceit out and demand that everyone obey the laws of physics, but then you’d be left without warp drive, too. A lumbering starship better conveys size and mass to the audience, but a Star Trek ship should be capable of rapid acceleration in any direction.

#24–Yet another reason that the carbon units infest trekmovie.com!

#20: well, for one, you mis-spelled grammar.


(damned (former) English teachers) heh heh…

Stars and other celestial bodies can be “heard…” they emit radio frequencies. So I’m sure that many of the energy-based weapons must have some kind of frequencies that they emit when used, that could be picked up and heard on other ships…. so there’s one way to justify it.

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Likewise, when a photon torpedo is fired, and there’s no ship around to detect the frequences that can be heard using sensors, does it make a sound?

Think anout it.

I mean, think ABOUT it. Anyway, when we hear a warp effect, a phaser or torpedo, even a blast, in the Trek movies, we are hearing the sound they would make if you had a sensor tuned to the resonent frequencies they emit.

So there.


loathe loathe?

Don’t feel too bad, I do it all the time… I wish we could make edits on our comments on this sit (oh Anthony?)

and speaking of errors…

“Porco will not be at work on the Trek project for a while (likely when the go into post-production). So for now she is focusing on her day job and like a real life Starship captain, Porco and her team are out there (via Cassini) seeking out strange new worlds (and maybe even new life forms). Right now she is very excited by Enceladus, one of Saturns moons. Her team recently discovered geysers which may mean that there could be more to discover, Porco effuses about the disocvery:”

Saturns moons?

truly… (damned English teachers) …. In a way, I hate pointing out grammatical errors… I have this fear of folks sitting out there with phasers drawn waiting for me to make any errors. ;-)