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Space Tech Fact and Fiction
In "Star Trek," science often drives the plot forward. Whether characters are beaming to the surface of an alien planet or using warp drive to take a shortcut across the Milky Way, technology is essential for the crewmembers of the USS Enterprise to do their jobs.
"Star Trek" doesn't always get this science and technology exactly right, but viewers shouldn't harp on the franchise's missteps, said David Allen Batchelor, a member of the radiation effects and analysis group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"Generally, 'Star Trek' is pretty intelligently written, and more faithful to science than any other science fiction series ever shown on television," Batchelor wrote in a recent analysis of "Star Trek" tech. [Warp Drive & Transporters: How 'Star Trek' Technology Works (Infographic)]
"'Star Trek' also attracts and excites generations of viewers about advanced science and engineering, and it's almost the only show that depicts scientists and engineers positively, as role models," Batchelor added. "So let's forgive the show for an occasional misconception in the service of an epic adventure."
Below is a list of the technology he analyzes, from A to Z.
Search for lifeSlide 2 of 27
Search for life
Astronomers are busy looking for other exoplanets. So far, about 3,400 alien worlds have been discovered, most of them by NASA's Kepler space telescope. Some of these planets are rocky and apparently reside in the "habitable zone" of their parent stars, just like Earth. But researchers have yet to find any signs of life, let alone intelligent aliens such as those that populate the "Star Trek" universe.
Scientists mainly agree that carbon-based life-forms (like those of Earth) could be common in the universe, because carbon is so abundant, Batchelor wrote. Humanoid races like the Vulcans on "Star Trek" are less likely (but then again, actors need to be able to fit into costumes).
"Could half-human/half-alien hybrids ever exist, like Mr. Spock?" Batchelor wrote. "It seems almost impossible, but with recombinant DNA, our scientists have already created interspecies hybrids. Mr. Spock is not totally beyond biochemical reality, but definitely at the edge." [10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]Slide 3 of 27
AndroidsSlide 4 of 27
Viewers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" are familiar with Data, the android being who learns how to deal with emotions through a special chip implanted in his brain. Data may have trouble understanding jokes, but his computing wizardry and eagerness to help made him a favorite among fans.
Today, we can transmit information simply from brain to machine to help paralyzed people move, Batchelor said. Also, NASA's Robonaut 2 can flip switches and do simple tasks aboard the International Space Station.
"Creating 'Star Trek''s Mr. Data would be a historic feat of cybernetics, and it's very controversial in computer science whether it can be done," Batchelor said. "Maybe a self-aware computer can be put into a human-sized body and convinced to live sociably with us and our limitations. That's a long way ahead of our computer technology, but maybe not impossible."Slide 5 of 27
Artificial gravitySlide 6 of 27
In "Star Trek," starships use artificial gravity to prevent their crewmembers from floating around like astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) do. There are mechanical ways to create artificial gravity, such as the fictional spinning space station in the famous 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's also possible to generate artificial gravity with magnetic fields, but there would be some problems, Batchelor said.
"Artificial gravity is not about to provide the normal environment of weight that the Enterprise crew experience," he wrote. "Specially designed magnetic fields could do a similar, weaker job, but they would play havoc with metal equipment … Generating artificial graviton particles is imaginable, but there's no way to say how it might be done."
It would be nice if artificial gravity were available for astronauts, though. After months in microgravity conditions, spaceflyers commonly experience decreased bone density, loss of muscle strength and vision problems. [The Human Body in Space: 6 Weird Facts]Slide 7 of 27
Cloaking deviceSlide 8 of 27