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.

1 comment: