Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Asteroids of Star Trek

I was recently re-watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There's a scene in the first half of the movie where the newly re-fitted Enterprise is having problems with its warp engines.
When the crew tries to bring the ship to warp speed an instability in the warp engines instead creates a wormhole (and not the good kind like they had on DS9). While the ship is caught in the wormhole, they encounter and nearly collide with an asteroid.

This got me to thinking about:
a) how asteroids are portrayed in the Star Trek universe and
b) what asteroids are named for either Star Trek characters or those people who helped to create the series. It turns out that there are several of them.

The writers of Star Trek didn't always get their astronomy right. In classic Trek (which is mostly what I'll be talking about here) they encountered a few 'planetoids' (like the one in Metamorphosis and later Regula seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). As near as I can figure, in Star Trek a 'planetoid' is something that astronomers today would call dwarf planet. It wasn't until the 3rd season's Paradise Syndrome (which I have yet to cover in my blog) that Star Trek gets good and close to an actual asteroid.
In the episode an asteroid (shown above) is on a collision course with a planet populated by Native Americans (!). The Enterprise is to deflect the asteroid before causes mayhem on the planet. Naturally, there are complications, but today I'm talking about asteroids.

The asteroid shown in the episode doesn't look anything like any real asteroid that has yet been seen up close with a spacecraft. 
Of course the episode was produced in 1968 and the first spacecraft encounter with an asteroid wasn't until 1991, when the Galileo probe flew past asteroid 951 Gaspra (shown above). Asteroids come in several different types. Gaspra is a S-type asteroid (the most common), meaning that it is basically a big rock.

It is possible that the black, shiny asteroid shown in Paradise Syndrome represents a different type of asteroid though. At least some of the M-type asteroids are thought to be largely made of metals such as nickel and iron. What was shown in the episode could certainly have been one of these asteroids. No M-type asteroids have been visited by a spacecraft yet, so we don't have a close look at one. There are forward-looking groups who are considering how we might eventually mine M-type asteroids, but it will be a few years before we see one up close. When we finally do we'll know how well the 1960s effects team did.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an asteroid portrayed in the 1979 movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This of course was made more than a decade before the first spacecraft had an encounter with an asteroid. So how did they do?
The movie gives two visualizations of the asteroid. In the view above, we see how it looked in the wormhole. There's more wormhole than asteroid here, so there isn't much detail that can be discerned. But the view shown on Chekov's targeting computer (below) gives a much better look.
The effects team rendered a key feature that was later found on all the asteroids that have been seen by spacecraft - impact craters. These craters, like the ones on the Moon, form when smaller objects crash into larger ones. This collision process was very important in the early solar system, but I digress.

Compare the asteroid as shown in the movie (above) with this real-life asteroid (at right). That's the asteroid known as 243 Ida. Ida was photographed by the Galileo spacecraft in 1993. It too is an S-type asteroid.

If I stripped away the green and the targeting graphics from the movie asteroid, you'd see that two are very similar and that the Star Trek: TMP effects did a fine job of nailing down that small asteroids are both irregular in shape and are largely covered by impact craters of various sizes.

Don't think that the effects team was being especially prophetic though. The fact that small asteroids have an irregular shape and that they should be covered with craters was expected by astonomers. Still, they did a good job.

I don't recall any asteroid belts that were shown in the original series, but they certainly were in Star Trek: The Next Generation and in the other series that have followed (probably because everyone was better at special effects).
Here's a shot from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's season four episode Final Mission. Asteroids are everywhere. Effects teams know that audiences need something exciting to see, which is why asteroid belts look so crazy dangerous on TV and in the movies. Naturally, we've not yet explored asteroid belts in other solar systems, but in our own, the asteroids are very, very small compared to the vast regions of space that separate them. So basically asteroid belts are nothing like what you see.

Which brings me to our real asteroid belt and the worlds in it that have names associated with Star Trek.
Both Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock have asteroids named for them. Well, sort of. It turns out that asteroid 2309 Mr. Spock was technically named for the cat of the astronomer who discovered the asteroid. And of course, the cat as named for Star Trek's Mr. Spock. 4864 Nimoy was named for the real Leonard Nimoy. The orbits of those two are shown above, looking down on the solar system, and below in a view from the side.
As you can see 4864 Nimoy is only slightly tipped relative to the orbital planes of the major planets, but 2309 Mr. Spock is tipped nearly 11 degrees to their orbital plane.

Other Trek actors have been honored with asteroid names. They are:

7307 Takei was named for George Takei, who played Lt. Sulu.
68410 Nichols was named for Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura.

So far, it looks like there is no asteroid named for William Shatner.

There is an asteroid named for Gene Roddenberry (4659 Roddenberry). 9777 Enterprise is named for my favorite starship.
All of these are main belt asteroids, meaning that they orbit between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Several writers from the original series also have asteroids named for them. They include:

10177 Ellison was named for Harlan Ellison (The City On The Edge Of Forever).
143622 RobertBloch was named for Robert Bloch (What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Catspaw, Wolf in the Fold).
186835 NormanSpinrad was named for Norman Spinrad (The Doomsday Machine).

In all cases these authors had the asteroids named for them because of their larger body of work and not because of their association with Star Trek, but because they were contributors to the show, I included them here. (For other science fiction authors that have had asteroids named for them see my post The Asteroids of Science Fiction from earlier this year.)
Putting it all together, we have the plot above, but what about later incarnations of Star Trek? I've searched on the more famous actors and writers from the movies and TV shows and haven't turned up anyone else. I'm not saying that my list necessarily captures all of the people and characters from Star Trek that have asteroids named for them, but these are all the ones that I know about. There are some red herrings out there too. For instance, 178008 Picard was named for a French Engineer, not the fictional captain of the Enterprise.

If anyone knows of some that I've missed, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

I assembled the orbit diagram images from the plots available at the JPL Small-Body Database Browser and I used various sources (including the Minor Planet Center's Minor Planet Names: Alphabetical List) to compile this list.

Jupiter, Pine Tree & Moon

Here's how Jupiter (at top) and the Moon looked Friday night from my back yard as they sort of framed a pine tree:
The Moon was on the other side of Jupiter last night, but clouds blocked the view.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Pluto At Its Best

Last summer the New Horizons mission made its historic flyby of Pluto. Data from the spacecraft have been slowly beamed back to Earth and its still not all here yet. But what is here is an amazing array of images and other information that have revealed this world to be nothing short of spectacular.

Today NASA unveiled their highest resolution imagery of Pluto showing an amazing and diverse range of landscapes.

Have a look at their video which cuts across our solar system's most famous dwarf planet:

Here's a just a piece of the cut across Pluto, its what they labeled at the Pitted, hummocky Nitrogen ice plains:
It's like nothing seen on any other surface in the solar system. (Note: I rotated the image.) The video goes too fast for my tastes, so it is worth the time to look at the full cut across Pluto. You can see the full image here. It's amazing.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Star Trek: Spectre of the Gun

On TV the third season of the original series of Star Trek series kicked off with the infamous "Spock's Brain" episode, but the first one produced was:
Spectre of the Gun is a very unusual episode of Star Trek

The episode begins with the Enterprise on a mission to "establish contact with the Melkotians at all costs" and even though they are telepathically warned away, Kirk presses onward toward their destination. 
We get a nice special effects sequence as the Enterprise encounters and then flies past a rotating buoy on their way to the planet.
There the landing party (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty & Chekov) encounters a Melkotian, who doesn't take kindly to their presence: "Aliens. Our warning was plain. You have disregarded it. You shall be punished...You are disease. The disease must be destroyed. Your plea has been heard, and sentence has been pronounced. It is done."
Their sentence proves to be a strange one indeed as they are catapulted to something that looks like the American old west, but not in any that actually looks real. Even McCoy remarks that "It's just bits and pieces. It's incomplete." Yeah. Great sets!

Yet, in spite of the appearance of things our heroes are convinced that what they are experiencing is absolutely real. McCoy describes it as a "harsh reality" and then "This is not a dream."

The landing party soon learns that they are in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 the date of the famous shooting at the OK Corral. They have been cast in the role of the Clantons who were killed at the shooting Yes, it is a strange sentence indeed. 
They attempt to flee, but Tombstone, Arizona has a force field keeping them in.
Chekov is gunned down by Morgan Erp, which comes as a surprise as he was in the role of Billy Claiborne--a person who survived the infamous shoot out.
Seeing no way out and not wanting to partake in the impending shootout, Spock and McCoy make a tranquilizing gas grenade out of a can of baking powder. Really.

They test it on Scotty, but nothing happens.

The fact that nothing happened is the crux of the episode, as it convinces Spock, who knows that their concoction should have worked, that what they are experiencing is unreal.
When McCoy counters that the bullet that killed Chekov was real, Spock tells him that "His mind killed him." And then we get a series of almost random philosophical statements from Spock:
"Physical reality is consistent with universal laws.
"Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality. All of this is unreal. 

"We judge reality by the response of our senses.
"Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules. 

"We judged the bullets to be solid, the guns to be real, therefore they can kill. I know the bullets are unreal, therefore they cannot harm me."
The solution? Remove all doubt about the reality of the bullets. To do so Spock mind-melds with Scotty, McCoy & Kirk.

"The bullets are unreal. Without body. They are illusions only. Shadows without substance. They will not pass through your body, for they do not exist....They are shadows. Illusions. Nothing but ghosts of reality. They are lies. Falsehoods. Spectres without body. They are to be ignored."
When he's finished they all stand their ground as the Erps fire away.
And the bullets pass straight through them!
Seizing the moment, Kirk then does one of his patented Run & Jump Kicks into Wyatt Erp and pulls Wyatt's gun on him, which is kind of odd as, you know, the bullets are unreal. He considers shooting Erp, but then decides to show mercy and then everyone, including Chekov, suddenly reappears on the Enterprise bridge.
The Melkotians were impressed, by Kirk's actions telling him to "Approach our planet and be welcome," but Spock knows that Kirk wanted to kill Erp. Kirk confesses that Spock was right, but he and humanity have been able to overcome their instinct to kill.

It's a good Star Trek ending. It is a shame though that it takes the episode such a long, long time to get going though. There's too much in Tombstone as they talk to the Erps, the bartender, the Sheriff and the Marshall (they have both?), try to get away, Chekov ("Billy") has a girl, etc for my tastes. The episode finally picks up when they've finished making their tranquilizing gas grenade, but everything before that drags on way too long.

Composer Jerry Fielding wrote the musical score to the episode. It's not my favorite either. He tried to go western, but I'm not a big fan of the results.

Next up is the action packed Elaan of Troyius.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Cloudy Transit

Astronomers around the world today witnessed a relatively rare alignment of the planet Mercury and the Sun. Mercury passed directly in front of the Sun's disc in an event known as a transit.

Southern California normally has clear skies, but in the San Diego area May and June can be particularly cloudy as low clouds frequently blow in from the ocean. Locally it is known as "May Gray" and "June Gloom."

Today's transit of Mercury was mostly a victim of the May Gray from my vantage point at Palomar College (that's where I teach astronomy).

The event began before the Sun rose in California, making the first part invisible. The clouds blocked most of the rest of the view, but they did part a bit early in the morning.

The college's NS Building has a rooftop solar telescope and the photo below comes from it:
Photo by Tony Kopec
This image was taken with a hydrogen alpha filter that reveals some of the details just above the Sun's photosphere. Mercury is the small black dot.

Compare the view of Mercury above, with the pic below that I took during the June 2012 transit of Venus:
Different telescopes were used (the Venus transit photo was of a white light projection using my personal telescope), but it is easy to see that Venus (the big black circle) looks a whole lot bigger than Mercury does. This is because Venus is a whole lot bigger than Mercury is and also because Venus is significantly closer to Earth than Mercury is. The other spots on the Sun are sunspots.

If you missed today's transit, here's how it looked from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory:
The next Mercury transit event will be on November 11, 2019.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Star Trek: Season Two Redux

Yes, I've been blogging about the original Star Trek series for a while and I've just completed my last episode from its second season, so here is my list of the top 10 episodes of season two.
#10 The Apple - Kirk plays the role of the devil, casting out a civilization from paradise, but its okay as he needed to do so to save his ship. Oh, and Spock gets hit by lightning. I suspect that few others would put this in their top 10 list, but this is my guilty pleasure choice.

Favorite Line: "All the world knows about Vaal. He causes the rains to fall and the sun to shine. All good comes from Vaal."
#9 By Any Other Name - Alien invaders from another galaxy seize the Enterprise and learn what it means to be human. This is perhaps another guilty pleasure choice, but it's my list, so why not?

Favorite Line: "It's green."
#8 Mirror, Mirror - There's an alternate universe where Spock is evil and wears a beard. A beard! What's not to love? Well, plenty, but if you just go with it, it is pretty fun. This episode spawned a whole bunch of sequels in Deep Space Nine, Enterprise and an awesome one from Star Trek Continues too.

Favorite Line: "In every revolution, there's one man with a vision. "
#7 Obsession - Lots of Red Shirts die as Kirk must destroy a Killer Outer Space Vampire Cloud. Still, it is good stuff.

Favorite Line: "Mister Spock, why aren't you dead?"
#6 The Ultimate Computer - A classic Kirk vs. Computer Episode, only this time it's personal, as the computer, M5, may put Kirk out of a job.

Favorite Line: "We're invincible. Look what we've done. Your mighty starships, Four toys to be crushed as we choose!"
#5 The Trouble With Tribbles - Rapidly breeding, but adorable fur balls eat a lot of GMO grain and threaten a space station with ecological disaster through rapid population growth, while inadvertently uncovering a Klingon plot. It is oodles of fun.

Favorite Line: "Surely you must have realized what would happen if you removed the tribbles from their predator-filled environment into an environment where their natural multiplicative proclivities would have no restraining factors."
# 4 Who Mourns for Adonais? -  Michael Forest plays the Greek god Apollo, who demands that Kirk and his crew worship him. A wonderful episode, that also has a great sequel from Star Trek Continues.

Favorite Line: "I offer you more than your wildest dreams have ever imagined. You'll become the mother of a new race of gods. You'll inspire the universe. All men will revere you almost as a god yourself. And I shall love you for time without end, worlds without end. You shall complete me, and I you." - How's that for a pick up line?
# 3 Journey to Babel -  We get to meet Spock's parents as the Enterprise escorts a ship full of ambassadors to a peace conference that is threatened by dangerous foes. It's just awesome.

Favorite Line: "Mother, how can you have lived on Vulcan so long, married a Vulcan, raised a son on Vulcan, without understanding what it means to be a Vulcan?" Honorable mention: "Tellarites do not argue for reasons. They simply argue."
# 2 Amok Time - Kirk and Spock fight to the death. What more do I need to say?

Favorite Line: "The air is the air. What can be done?"
# 1 The Doomsday Machine - A wandering, automated planet-killing machine takes out the U.S.S. Constellation, will its captain bring the Enterprise down too? I pretty much love everything about this episode--the acting, the 60s effects, the music--everything. It may be my top TOS Trek episode from any of the three seasons.

Favorite Line: "No, I'm a doctor, not a mechanic."

Honorable Mentions: The Changeling was on this list, but got bumped. Return to Tomorrow was also a strong contender, if for no other reason, than for Kirk's Risk Speech. It's that awesome.

All-in-all, season two was pretty good. Yes, there were some turkeys, but most of them had something wonderful here and there.
It took me almost a year to cover the first season of Star Trek and almost two and a half years to get through blogging about season two. At this rate, I'll be finishing up season three.....well, who knows, but I'm planning on picking up the pace.

Since I'm covering the episodes in production order, season three will begin with Spectre of the Gun.