Trekking to Outer Space… And Beyond!

three interacting galaxies, which was released recently to mark Hubbles 19th birthday. The grouping, known as Arp 194, sits about 600 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cepheus. Feustel says the Cosmic Fountain image reminds him of a cosmic question mark. I think its Hubbles way of asking us whats next, Feustel says. Im curious to see whats next as well. © NASA

An image of three interacting galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The grouping, known as Arp 194, sits about 600 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cepheus. © NASA

Review:  Star Trek

ScriptPhD Grade:  A

Still sitting atop the box office a couple of weeks after its release, the new addition to the Star Trek franchise is, quite simply, sensational.  J.J. Abrams’s stunning visual pyrotechnics in the first ten minutes are worth the price of admission alone.  The 11th film in the Star Trek movie series, arguably one of its best, goes back to the beginning to recreate the narrative of James Kirk and Spock.  As the film opens, the USS Kelvin is under attack by Captain Nero, of the Romulan mining ship Narada.  Only able to save his pregnant wife, acting Captain George Kirk is able to witness the birth of his son, James T. Kirk, before the Kelvin is destroyed.  The action picks back up as Kirk, having grown up to be the cocky daredevil that we all know and love, is urged by Captain Christopher Pike to channel his recklessness and arrogance towards joining the Starfleet Academy.  On the way to the USS Enterprise, he meets some familiar friends, Commander Spock, whose own childhood is chronicled early in the film, and Leonard McCoy.  During Kirk’s first moments on the Enterprise, an attack similar to the one that killed his father occurs, and in trying to warn Pike and the rest of the crew that it might be a Romulan ambush, he is kicked off the ship to the desolate Siberia-like Delta Vega for mutiny.  There, in the movie’s best moments, he meets an aged Spock Prime (portrayed by Leonard Nimoy), who relays events of the future to him.  In the year 2387, a particularly strong supernova threatens the entire galaxy.  Ambassador Spock is sent aboard the Jellyfish to inject a “red matter” with unstable gravitational properties into the star, thereby creating an artificial black hole to devour the supernova.  But he didn’t do it in time, and the planet Romulus was devoured instead, along with both ships, which travel into the past.  Nero arrives 154 years earlier, when he destroys the Kelvin helmed by Kirk’s father, and Spock arrives 25 years later and is marooned by Nero on the Delta Vega, a witness to the destruction of his own planet with the very same red matter.  Spock Prime convinces Kirk that he must become the Captain of the Enterprise.  They meet Montgomery Scott (always a welcome source of humor relief) at a Starfleet outpost and beam back up to the Enterprise.  Aided by Pavel Checkov, Scotty, Spock, Bones, Mr. Sulu, and Uhura, Kirk sets of on a dangerous and exciting mission to stop Nero, save the captured Captain Pike, and save the entire galaxy.  All in a day’s work!

What worked best about the movie was its updated cast, it’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge nod to little bits of the original series, and the movie’s overall approachability.  Perfectly cast, its two leads, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, sizzle with chemistry and add a fresh facelift to beloved characters of sci-fi lore.  They channel this chemistry well Of particular note was Quinto’s lone scene with Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock.  When they stood side-by-side, giving each other the Vulcan salute, I’ll admit, my nerdy little sci-fi heart melted.  Also noteworthy were Karl Urban as Bones, a hilarious Simon Pegg as Scotty, and Eric Bana who does what he can with Nero (who is a little too one-dimensionally eeeeeeeeeeevil for my taste). It’s hard for anyone to find disappointment with this movie.  There are so many wonderful “insider” Trekkie moments to the new Star Trek, with references to Treks of the past, that older fans will not feel ignored.  By the same token, by rebooting the story of Kirk and Spock’s original friendship and retelling the story of how Kirk came to be the Captain of the Enterprise, those fans who haven’t necessarily watched the series or the movies (*whistles innocently to deflect attention*) will still be able to follow the action anew.

Thanks to some first-class big-screen magic, a sleek, snazzy tricked out Enterprise set, and all the bells and whistles modern CGI can buy, I’d say the Trek franchise will live long and prosper for quite some time to come!

The Science:
I’m not here to nitpick about every little detail from the movie, like, ohhhhh, DRILLING INTO A PLANET and the considerable power it would take beyond Captain Nero’s big, bad drill.  Or that quantum teleportation, at the very basis of “beam me up Scotty”, has been accomplished only on the modest scale of atoms or light beams.  But I digress.  Instead, here are a couple of Big Items to mull over as you’re watching or re-watching the movie.

Black Hole Sun, Won’t You Come…
Let’s talk about black holes for a moment, since they get a lot of play in the Star Trek movie.  A black hole is a region of space with such a powerful gravitational field that nothing, even light can escape the pull.  That is why it is called black—it absorbs all light but emits none.  At the center of a black hole is a concentrated point called a singularity surrounded by a spherical boundary called an event horizon.  If crossed, this boundary will lead all matter and light inevitably towards the singularity.  How are they created?  Well, there’s three types of black holes.  Black holes at the center of galaxies are called supermassive black holes, because they are just that—supermassive, usually on the order of 10^5 to 10^10 solar masses.  Then you have an intermediate black hole, which is on a smaller scale than supermassive black holes, but whose formation is still a mystery to physicists.  Lastly, and most common, are stellar black holes, created by the gravitational collapse of giant stars (at least 20 times more massive than the Sun) at the end of their lifetimes.  When a star runs out of nuclear fuel—its ability to balance the gravity with pressure—gravity wins out and the star, if its massive enough, explodes as a supernova. That is the core completely collapses under its own weight to a point with zero volume and infinite density (the singularity).  The velocity required to be able to break free from this point would require exceeding the speed of light.

Now having reviewed all of this, you don’t have to be Einstein to know that getting really close to black holes—bad.  Getting trapped inside one—VERY bad.  But they don’t suck things in.  Unless you are closer than twice the diameter of the black hole, the gravitational pull is no different than anywhere else in the Universe.  Each black hole has an event horizon, a mathematical demarcation of the space-time continuum, the region from which no escape is possible.  Cross the horizon, and you are trapped, stay out of the horizon, and you are safe.  In fact, if our own Sun were to theoretically go supernova and collapse into a black hole, the Earth would not suddenly be sucked in like a Hoover, since that black hole would only be about 3 km in diameter, proportional to its mass and the radius of its event horizon.  You would have to have a very massive star or planet—definitely something bigger than Vulcan or Romulus—to create a black hole with a large enough horizon to be able to pose a danger to ships and other planets far away.  And even then, it wouldn’t be able to reach across outer space to go get them.

Escape from a black hole.  It sounds like a bad 1960’s Sci-Fi movie.  And bad science.
In the movie, the black hole that envelops Romulus spits out Spock and Nero’s ships into the past.  This is just not possible.  Assuming that the ships made contact with the supernova’s event horizon, tidal gravitational forces would carry you to the black hole’s singularity in a matter of seconds.  And since the concentration of mass per radius of a black hole is condensed such that the escape velocity—the speed with which you’d need to move to escape the gravitational pull of that object—is greater than the speed of light, nothing gets out.  The ships wouldn’t even escape as minced meat; they just wouldn’t escape.

Later in the movie, as the Enterprise is about to escape to safety from the final black hole battle, the black hole’s event horizon threatens to suck the ship in, Scotty suggests ejecting the warp core and blowing it up near the black hole, thus creating enough momentum to thrust to push the ship away.  Drop a bomb here on Earth, and the force of the explosion creates a shock wave as the exothermic reaction of the explosion travels through a chemically unstable medium, such as air (lots of oxygen, nitrogen, methane, etc.).  We’ve all seen the videos of how far away a nuclear detonation can have this effect.  The problem is, there’s no AIR in space.  The force of the explosion would just create massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation.  And even if we were to swallow this oopsie, once again, the escape velocity of an event horizon is equal to the speed of light, which the Enterprise would have to outgun.  So we would have to make some assumptions, like relativity and quantum theory being wrong, to breathe a sigh of relief at this miraculous escape.  J.J., bubbeleh, you’re killing me!

Red Matter, It Matters!
All things being equal, the scientific low-light of the entire movie had to be the “red matter” resulting in the implosion of the planets Vulcan and Romulus.  The matter was created to possess certain gravitational properties, and was originally used for a good purpose, to stop the supernova threatening the Galaxy.  Without spoiling the movie for those that haven’t seen it, the matter, having reappeared in the hands of the evil Nero, is used to create a black hole that envelops the planet Vulcan.  Now I can predict what you’re thinking I’ll say next… “You can’t create a black hole!!!”  Well, actually, yes, you theoretically can.  And recently, researchers from the University of St. Andrews did… on a tabletop!  The researchers used the refractive index of a fiber optic as an analogue for a gravitational field.  They sent a pulse of light through that fiber optic that changed that refractive index, and then followed that up with a probe beam of light that could travel faster than the pulse, but because of the local altered field, couldn’t move past it.  Boom, theoretical black hole!  This experiment was prototypic at best, though, a model for a black hole using fiberoptic analogy.  But to create something powerful enough to collapse a planet, a galaxy, especially given what we’ve discussed about getting close to a black hole, he fact of the matter is…. you need matter.  And lots of it.  The size and diameter of a black hole is directly proportional to mass of the original collapsing star.  Something the size of a droplet of red matter would create a black hole smaller than the size of a pin, and since the event horizon is twice the diameter away…. OK, you guys are starting to get it.  So the idea that a mere soupcon of mysterious “red stuff” can create a black hole core with that kind of gravitational pull?  Well, that’s Hollywood.  Shiny, dazzling Hollywood, but Hollywood no less.

Interested in reading more about the science behind Star Trek?  Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss has written a fantastic book called “The Physics of Star Trek”.

All other things being equal, however, the movie itself had way too many shiny explosions, neat special effects, a decent script, and likeable, sexy cast portraying familiar characters to divert my attention away from J.J. Abrams’s brilliance or the tight production values.  Bottom line?  Worth seeing, and definitely reinvigorates the franchise.  And hey, it got us talking about physics, right?

But you don’t have to move at warp speed or dream big on a movie screen to see stunning examples of technology and engineering taking off to the cosmos or staying right here on Earth! Click “continue reading” for more details…

JPL Open House

A couple of weeks ago, the friendly NASA scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech University in Pasadena, CA opened their doors to the general public, as they do only once a year to show the behind-the-scenes secrets of their engineering wonders and sneak peeks of upcoming projects. JPL is one of NASA’s largest laboratories, with 21 spacecraft and nine instruments on active mission, all a part of NASA’s plan to explore the Earth, the Moon, Mars and beyond. The ScriptPhD waded knee-deep into Nerdvana to check it all out:

Rovers and Robots and Rockets, oh my!
One of the treats of JPL’s Open House each year is a look at the robotic critters that travel the limits of outer space, exploring planetary terrain, and giving us critical information about the makeup of our solar system.  Much of the groundwork for these prototypes happens at JPL.  A few of my personal favorites:

A full-size, full-scale model of the Phoenix Mars Lander, built at JPL, which fulfilled a five-month mission in the Martian northern plains to answer important questions about Martian life sustainability, the presence of water on Mars and how polar dynamics affects Martian climate.  The Mars Lander had some robotic “firsts” for outer space exploration:  an atomic force microscope for unprecedented views of Martian soil and a chemistry lab-in-a-box for instantaneous analysis of soil and water chemistry.

The main body of the Phoenix Mars rover, housing the chemistry lab-in-a-box.

The main body of the Phoenix Mars rover, housing the chemistry lab-in-a-box, the surface imager, the meteorological station, and the robotic arm and camera.

The sidearms of the Phoenix Mars Rover.  The dark wings to either side of the landers main body are solar panels for providing electric power.

The sidearms of the Phoenix Mars Rover. The dark "wings" to either side of the lander's main body are solar panels for providing electric power.

The Axel rover, a lithe new prototype capable of climbing vertical rocky terrain!

NASAs Axel Rover, about to climb a vertical rocky wall, simulating the rocky terrain of other planets and moons.

NASA's Axel Rover, about to climb a vertical rocky wall, simulating the rocky terrain of other planets and moons.

The ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra Terrestrial Explorer), a robust, rugged winnebago-like rover that will be responsible for carrying payload and habitat on top of (food, water, possible lodging) for exploration on the Moon.

The ATHLETE rover.

The ATHLETE rover.

High-Tech Gadgets, Low-Tech Assembly
The highlight of the trip was a look inside the belly of JPL’s Spacecraft Fabrication Facility, normally off-limits to the public, where the ittiest, bittiest components of rocket and spacecraft hardware get manufactured. I mean, sure we can all ooh and ahh at the Starship Enterprise, but someone has to put all those nuts and bolts together, right? Take a look…

All of this high-tech wizardry happens in a room that looks like your uncle Sid’s mechanics shop:

The main floor of JPLs Spacecraft Fabrication Facility

The main floor of JPL's Spacecraft Fabrication Facility

But don’t be fooled –the simplicity of this shop belies the complexity of the science involved. Each workstation (such as the one below) is comprised of highly specialized different machinery and computers to service the vast array of parts and components that make up a typical spacecraft or exploratory device.

A typical Spaceraft Fabrication Facility work station.

A typical Spaceraft Fabrication Facility work station.

For example, this little cone-shaped part is actually a part of a rocket’s engine brake propulsion system, and helps lower the rocket as the spool unwinds during landing.

The cone device used in the brake propulsion systems of rocket engines.

The cone device used in the brake propulsion systems of rocket engines.

The harmonic drive, a simple input/output gearing mechanism, was manufactured and used in NASA’s OPPORTUNITY and SPIRIT Mars rovers, with 19 harmonic gear units dispersed throughout the robot’s arms, gearing, steering system and drive mechanisms.

A simple harmonic drive.

A simple harmonic drive.

After assembly, all parts end up in the back room of the Fabrication Facility, which serves as the quality control and testing site, to make sure that each part is rocket-ready to withstand the temperature, pressure, terrain and other rigors of outer space. From there, they are shipped to various NASA assembly locations and then go boldly where no (hu)man has gone before!

A rocket part gets quality control tested via a computer simulation.

A rocket part gets quality control tested via a computer simulation.

Location, Location, Location!

Most impressive was the application of NASA-derived technology for the betterment and advancement of life right here on Earth.  In conjunction with NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program, new technologies and capabilities specifically innovated for mission objectives end up with commercial uses in health and medicine, transportation, public safety and national security, environment, agriculture and computer uses.  In fact, quite a bit of technology that looked futuristic and high-tech savvy in early Star Trek episodes is now a quotidian reality (MRI scanners, cell phones, PHASRs used by the military, Bluetooth phone devices, etc.).  A few recent NASA breakthroughs include:

•Robotic joints specifically developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center were altered to support a horse’s weight with a special harness, and will revolutionize treatment for horses with leg injuries that would otherwise kill them.  The human versions of this technology are being applied to US military personnel rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
•The development of space suit technologies for making deep-sea diving suits capable of protecting divers called to work in extreme and dangerous conditions, such as high pressure, toxic chemical spills, and chemical warfare agents.
•Adaptation of the Mars rover Panoramic Mast Assemblies for Gigapan robotic platform for consumer cameras, allowing earthly photographers to take digital panoramas like never before.  As a photography, buff, the ScriptPhD approves!
•Design of a nanomesh by Seldon Technologies, Inc. for filtering impurities from drinking water was able to filter out >99% of viruses, bacteria, chemical contaminants, E. Coli and Salmonella.  And it does all of this at 5 gallons per minute without electricity, heat, chemicals, or environmental impact.  Viva la astronautica!
•As we talked about in our review of Caprica, virtualization technology, a sci-fi staple, is fast becoming a reality.  Technology developed for improving the telepresence of the Johnson Space Center’s Robonaut was used for high-end head-mounted virtual reality applications, including virtual surroundings, and movement sensors.  Somewhere out there, LeVar Burton is smiling!

To see more of these stunning examples of engineering applications, go HERE.

The coolest part of all?  Live-tweeting, of course!  What would 21st Century space travel be like if you couldn’t follow every step on Facebook and Twitter?  To follow the latest and greatest adventures of NASA scientists at JPL, friend them either @NASA or @NASAJPL!

Hubble Telescope Crew—20th Century Launch, 21st Century Fix
All of this Deep Space excitement, of course, culminated in this week’s completion of the last Hubble Telescope Service Mission. What’s all the Hubble hullabaloo about, anyway? 19 years ago, the Hubble was carried into space by the space shuttle Discovery in April of 1990 and positioned on the Earths upper atmosphere, allowing it to take images with little background light. Used by everyone from NASA engineers, academic physicists, mathematicians and astronomers, commercial companies and even amateur users, its gorgeous, iconic images and groundbreaking data have helped to redefine our view of the cosmos and awakened the vast possibilities of our universe. All Hubble data is transmitted to Earth twice daily via satellites in White Sands, New Mexico (is it just me or does everything happen in New Mexico?), eventually ending up at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Looking for archives of past Hubble data? They’re actually available to the public at the Space Telescope Science Institute archives. Four previous service missions have replaced, added and improved optics and camera equipment of the telescope, have allowed it to beam data streams to the Earth as they’re collected, and have performed various mechanical and instrumentation servicing. What will happen to the Hubble? Well, it was never meant to be a permanent fixture. In fact, it’s already outlasted its initial 15-year mission. Eventually, its orbit around the Earth will decay over time due to its position in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and it will likely re-enter the atmosphere. This will either happen via a guided re-entry via another shuttle mission, or as a controlled re-entry by the future addition of an external propulsion module.

The value of the scientific information that has been obtained via the Hubble has been, well, astronomical. In addition to one of its main contributions to the field of astronomy and physics, helping to estimate the rate at which the universe is expanding and the very age of our universe, the Hubble’s sharpness and depth in telescopic photography has provided seminal pictures of distant supernovae, black holes, existing planets and objects of the solar system, including the use of Ultra Deep Field photography to capture galaxies billions of light years away.

The Cone Nebula, among the first images released after Hubbles STS-109 servicing flight in 2002, which Massimino participated in with Grunsfeld and Altman. The Cone Nebula, or NGC 2264, sits about 2,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros. ©NASA

The Cone Nebula, among the first images released after Hubble's STS-109 servicing flight. The Cone Nebula, or NGC 2264, sits about 2,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros. ©NASA

Hubble Ultra Deep Field exemplifies the telescopes cosmic vision. The picture, based on data from 2003 and 2004, shows 10,000 galaxies in a patch of sky in the constellation Fornax - including galaxies that emerged just 700 million years after the big bang. ©NASA

Hubble Ultra Deep Field exemplifies the telescope's cosmic vision. The picture, based on data from 2003 and 2004, shows 10,000 galaxies in a patch of sky in the constellation Fornax - including galaxies that emerged just 700 million years after the big bang. ©NASA

Service Mission 4:
Service Mission 4 (SM4) is the last planned shuttle mission for the Hubble space telescope, with improvements, additions, and repairs expected to take the telescope through at least 2014, when space observation is transitioned to its NASA successors, the James Webb Space Telescope and the proposed Advanced Technology Large Aperture Space Telescope. The original servicing mission was supposed to take place in 2004, however, was delayed indefinitely due to the Columbia shuttle tragedy and the human risk involved in launching a shuttle that could not reach the International Space Station if something went wrong. After public outcry, Congressional hearings, and a new NASA chief, the mission got underway May 11, 2009. Unlike previous service missions, this one enjoyed all the perks of 21st Century technology, including a live TV stream of the Hubble Mission, updates on the official Service Mission 4 website and the first ever live tweets from space from Michael Massimino, one of the three astronauts on the Atlantis crew, better known as @astro_mike! Follow all the Hubble updates from his Twitter blog here.

The Atlantis crew had a VERY busy 10 workdays up in space, as they performed on-orbit repair of current instruments and addition of new ones. The mission payload included:
•Two new toys: the Cosmic Origins Spectograph and the Wide Field Camera 3. These will allow the Hubble to continue its history of spectacular photography of distant stars, galaxies and universes using UV, infrared and visible light.
•Better, cleaner orbit: a fine guidance sensor for controling the telescope’s directional system, new gyroscopes for orientation and fighting upper atmoshpere drag, new batteries, a new outer blanket for better insulation, and a new lease on life!
•Safer re-entry: a soft-capture mechanism was installed onto the telescope. NASA had previously been weighing either attaching propulsion systems to the Hubble or a guided re-entry via another manned space mission. This soft-capture mechanism will allow another shuttle to grab onto the Hubble as she’s led back down to Earth after her mission is over.
•Best of all? An IMAX 3D camera was carried on the payload of the shuttle Atlantis, subsidized by IMAX and Warner Bros, for production of a new movie that will tell the story of the Hubble Telescope and be released sometime in 2010. will, of course cover it!

To hear a podcast of President Obama’s conversation with the crew of the Atlantis upon completion of their mission, click HERE. The Atlantis was supposed to land yesterday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, but was been waived off due to poor visibility. It landed today at Edwards Air Force base in California. God Speed and thanks from a proud country for a job well done, Atlantis!

By the way, while the guys were up in space, what movie do you think got screened for them? Why, Star Trek, of course! (


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