Science Diagnostic: Analyzing Star Trek Into Darkness IMAX Preview

On December 14th a 9-minute preview of Star Trek Into Darkness premiered with IMAX 3D screenings of The Hobbit. TrekMovie was quick to publish early impressions along with a later (more spoilery) detailed review on release day. But, was any of it scientifically realistic? Today Science Saturday is dedicated to an in-depth look beyond what we saw on the screen. Get your tricorder ready, and reverse the polarity of the warp nacelles; it’s time for a science diagnostic of the Into Darkness IMAX preview.


Red Plants on Planet Nibiru
One aspect of the preview that caught a lot of peoples’ eyes was the red colored plants on planet Nibiru. Although we have never seen (and therefore can’t necessarily comment on) plants on another planet, studies have determined that extraterrestrial plants are probably not the green leafy things we’re used to here on Earth. In fact, some scientists say that plants with a red dwarf star for a sun could even be black in color. Plants are green on Earth because it is the part of the EM spectrum where they can absorb the most light (and, for photosynthesizing organisms, light is energy). On a planet where the most energy was available as red light, the plants might adapt to that and color themselves red in order to harness the most energy from their sun (or suns, as it were).

Verdict: Completely believable

Kirk and Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy running from aliens on planet Nibiru

Kirk and Bones Jump Into the Sea
Taking a look at the red-planted planet Nibiru takes us directly into the next questionable science — Kirk and Bones jump (quite a long way down) off of a cliff and into the sea, where the submerged Enterprise awaits them. My first instinct? “Wow! Cool!” My second instinct? “Don’t you think they would be seriously hurt?” For some reason, movies like to make people believe that jumping off of a very tall building or cliff is okay so long as you fall into water. That’s not really true. In fact, the surface tension of water means that the impact might be a bit more jarring than you’d imagine.

Let’s assume the cliff face that Bones and Kirk jumped from was approximately 30 meters (~100 feet) from the water’s surface. When they hit the water, Bones and Kirk would be travelling at over 24 meters per second; that’s over 50 mph. After hitting the water, they’d be travelling only a few mph, meaning they would experience a deceleration of about 50 mph instantaneously (or at least within a few seconds) — almost like being in a car crash. Some say that jumping into the water feet first will alleviate the dangers, but that is definitely not true. Although you’ll avoid the “belly flop” scenario or a strange positioning of your body that could make the impact much worse for you, hitting the water feet first can cause spinal compression, bone fractures, and even concussion.

Verdict: Unrealistic.

Kirk and Dr. McCoy take a leap of faith

Underwater Enterprise
After Kirk and Bones take the plunge, so to speak, they use some convenient underwater propulsion boots (or something) to swim over to the submerged enterprise that awaits them on the ocean floor. The first question: could the Enterprise survive and operate underwater? Almost certainly yes. It was designed to work in some insane environments — from the vacuum of space to areas of extreme radiation to entering and exiting planetary atmospheres (including Saturn’s moon Titan as we saw in Star Trek 2009), not to mention travelling at warp speed. The high pressure underwater environment should be no problem for a vessel like the Enterprise.

The second question: would the salt water really have a bad effect on a starship, as Scotty claims it’s doing to the Enterprise? I’d wager that Scotty is just being a whiny engineer and that there’s really nothing to be worried about. Scotty says that big E has been underwater “since last night”, so, for less than one day. “Normal” metals like steel or other ferric alloys do corrode in salt water, it’s true, but it takes a lot longer than less-than-a-day to have any real effect. Moreover, the Enterprise is most likely made of tritanium, a super strong alloy. If tritanium is anything like our terrestrial titanium, it should be super-resistant to corrosion by salt water.

Verdict: Underwater Enterprise? Totally. Salt water corrosion? No way.

The Enterprise rising out of the Niburu ocean (presumably after the first nine minutes)

Into the Volcano
The biggest science “mistake” made in the Into Darkness preview was the depiction of the Nibiru volcano (full disclosure: I’m biased about this part; I’m a volcanologist). There are two things I’d like to touch on: the appearance of the inside of the volcanic crater and the effect of the heat on Spock and on the shuttlecraft.

Like standing amongst the flames of Hell. What would it really look like to stand inside of a volcano? To see the active magma burning and churning, steaming and burping, sending ash and gas and even giant boulders hundreds of feet into the air. I can tell you; I’ve seen it (that’s my day job). And, I can tell you it doesn’t look exactly like what we saw in Into Darkness. My biggest nitpick? The fire. Sure, fire and brimstone and all that — but, what comes out of a volcano is toxic gas (sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, water vapor, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide) and solid, molten rock. An eruption sends lava into the air, not flames and certainly not embers like we see in Trek. Some combustion can occur at the surface, but the real danger is in volcanic bombs, big slugs of molten red-hot lava, that fly through the air, deforming plastically and cooling as they fall back to earth. What they did get right was the type of rock they show Spock standing on (the non-molten one!). That is a real bonafide volcanic rock called “pahoehoe“. The lava movement around where Spock is standing isn’t bad either, but it’s hard for me to forgive the flames and embers. Have a look at the picture below, which is a good example of what it looks like when material comes out of a volcano, and the video that shows the lava lake of Vanuatu Volcano.

Spock takes a stroll through the Nibiru volcano

And, I’ve heard the argument that Nibiru is an alien planet meaning that the volcano might look different. That’s not untrue, but we know that Nibiru is a Class-M planet (it says so right on the screen in the IMAX preview) meaning that it has a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere that is breathable by humans. I don’t see what could be causing severe combustion akin to that of a house fire in Nibiru volcano that is so different from here on Earth. And, we do know something about volcanoes on other planets, so we know what materials they’re made out of. Spoiler alert: it’s rocks — the same kind that make up the volcanoes here on earth.

Material being ejected from an erupting volcano

Incredible footage of the lava lake at Vanuatu Volcano is what Spock should be seeing in Nibiru

Too Hot to Handle. According to Sulu (and everyone else who says that the heat from the volcano has “fried” some other system), a shuttlecraft cannot withstand the intense heat from a volcano. This is just crazy. First of all, a shuttlecraft, not unlike a starship, was designed to be in EXTREME environments including very hot places. Typical lava is anywhere from 900-1200 °C (about 1650-2200 °F). If hovering tens of meters above that lava, the temperature will be considerably less. For reference, the leading edges of space shuttle wings get to almost 3000 °F during a typical reentry into earth’s atmosphere. Considering the Enterprise shuttles can enter a planetary atmosphere, I’m guessing they can withstand the heat coming from a volcano. Secondly, and possibly more to the point, SPOCK IS STANDING INSIDE OF THE VOLCANO. Am I supposed to believe that Spock’s nifty volcano suit can withstand more heat that a shuttlecraft? Who designed this incredible suit, and why don’t they make spacecraft out of it?!

“If this volcano erupts, the planet dies” If by “planet” Spock means “the people of this planet”, this one is scientifically spot on. The volcano on Nibiru is HUGE. I have no trouble believing that it could cause a world-ending volcanic eruption. Such “supereruptions” have even occurred here on Earth. Okay, the planet didn’t “die” per se, but supereruptions have caused mass extinctions here on Earth and have even altered human history by killing off tens of thousands of people and by influencing migration patterns of early humans. One problem I have with the statement made by Spock that they must save the Nibiru people — aren’t they violating the Prime Directive? Spock makes a big speech about how Kirk must not interfere in any way with the Nibiru (even them seeing Kirk’s face is a violation), but Spock wants to stop a volcanic eruption that could seriously change the course of the Nibiru people’s history? I’m no expert here; what say you readers? Does the Prime Directive permit interference if the act of not interfering would result in the species’ extinction?

Verdict: Depiction of the volcano? Half right (minus the flames and embers). Showing real volcanic rock under Spock’s feet wins bonus points. The heat affecting the shuttlecraft while not affecting Spock in his volcano suit? Completely and utterly unbelievable. Bonus WTF: Violation of the Prime Directive!

Spock watches lava erupt in Nibiru volcano

The Floating Gurney
Although not a major part of the plot, I just had to comment on the floating gurney seen in the hospital where we see two parents visiting their sick daughter, since it’s what I feel is a fantastic example of a realistic technology. A floating gurney (ie one without wheels that could transport patients) would be extremely useful in hospitals. We know that the enterprise employs some kind of gravity plating (in fact, a lot of tech in Star Trek is used to manipulate gravity, e.g. inertial dampeners), so presumably the technology is readily available and, in fact, quite simple. And, the application to something like a hospital bed is just so believable. It’s little details like this that make me really feel like I am inside the world of Trek — when “simple” tech like that is common place and almost easy to miss.

Verdict: A nice, realistic touch!

Some Familiar Technology
It’s great to see the new and improved toys and gadgets, but what about the technology that hasn’t changed by the 23rd century? It’s nice to see that children still enjoy teddy bears — we see the parents giving one to their sick little girl in the hospital — but are we still using that awful digital bedside alarm clock? And, apparently cars haven’t changed all that much, except for the fact that they look like the Toyota Fun-Vii concept car but without the wheels. Oh, and they float. What other modern-day tech did you spot?

The car seen in the Trek preview looks something like this


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