Review: Star Trek 2009
Preview Star Trek (2009)
[NA] Starring: Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Eric Bana, Simon Pegg (Scotty), Karl Urban (Bones), John Cho (Sulu), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Anton Yelchin, Leonard Nimoy (Old Spock), Greg Ellis, Chris Hemsworth
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
We typically review, not preview movies but, for techno-nerds, the beginning of a new era of Star Trek, is a colossus. What's more, unlike the various TV series and previous movies, the new Star Trek returns to its origins. It depicts events that lead up to those of the original TV series, using younger versions of Captain Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones, Sulu, and Uhura. From a story standpoint, it's a stoke of genius; we get characters we love in a familiar setting. Furthermore, since it's been over 40 years since the original TV series came out, and although we're purists at heart, the idea of a reboot with updated technology gets us all atwitter.

As for plot and character inconsistencies with the old Star Trek, the new one apparently solves these with a nifty plot trick: a Romulan named Neru time travels from the future back to Kirk's younger days and, where it needs it, mucks up the time line.

Okay, our feelings are not all joy and giddiness; we know when it comes down to it, the new Trek makers don't give a rat's tail about staying true or being realistic. Let's face it, they don't have to cater to Trekies or techno-nerds. Our rears will be planted in theater seats just as soon as we can get the chance. It won't matter what we think of the trailers or any disappointing previews and rumors that may come, we will have to see the new Star Trek and that's what sobers us. Are they going to throw the baby--albeit an over forty baby--out with the bath water just to please the gee-whiz-another-cool explosion crowd or are they going to clean the kid up and give us some quality time with it?

Star Trek always was mainly about story, but it did make numerous breaks with past physics clichés in ways that made it dear to our hearts. For example, the Enterprise clearly was never designed for nor depicted as landing or taking off from planets. This meant it didn't need to be aerodynamic or equipped with the capacity for vertical takeoff, facts that gave  the originators the chance to create an icon, the Starship Enterprise, the coolest, most imaginative form of spacecraft ever conceived.

The original Star Trek creators recognized that a ship designed to explore the galaxy needed to carry a large crew equipped with a massive amount of supplies and resources. It made sense that most of the ship's volume needed to be devoted to this purpose. By contrast in NASA's Apollo missions, on blast off, most of the vehicle's volume was merely a container for the resources needed to overcome air resistance and exit Earth's gravity well in order to leave the planet. Furthermore as the resources were consumed, the containers for them had to be  jettisoned.

... a new era of Star Trek, is a colossus.

Want to learn more about movie physics in Star Trek and find out :
  • How Star Tek compares to Star Wars
  •  what should and shouldn't be done in space battles
  • what it takes to blast off and travel the galaxy
  • the basics of orbiting
Explore these topics and many more. Learn about physics through the lens of Hollywood movies.

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While the Space Shuttle might seem like an exception, keep in mind that it only goes fast enough to orbit not escape from Earth and at that it still has to leave its oversized fuel tank and booster rockets behind. If the Space Shuttle were capable of journeying to a distant planet, say Mars, it could not return because it could not take off.

So,  what have the new Trek makers done with the original creators' insight about having the Enterprise remain in space? The trailer shows us a youthful James Kirk riding his motor cycle up, on terra firma, to view the Enterprise under construction. It's a great visual but for us also a great disappointment. A real Starship the size of enterprise would most likely not be assembled on Earth. It would be built on a moon or asteroid-based facility where there was an abundance of energy (most likely solar) and raw materials with a low amount of gravity to overcome (the moon has 1/6 of Earth's) and no atmosphere to create air resistance.

The ship would likely be assembled mostly by robots, so there would be little need for providing amenities such as food, water, and a breathable atmosphere. Assembly in a low gravity situation would actually be easier than on Earth. Heavy parts could be moved into place with far less effort. The more complicated high tech parts such as computer chips would probably need to come from Earth, but even if all the parts came from Earth, from the standpoint of design, energy, and risk it would still be better to blast them into space a few at a time rather than all at once.

Still, there is no law of physics that says a starship can't be assembled on Earth and then be blasted into space. So, from a physics standpoint one of the pressing questions for the new Star Trek movie is how is the blastoff going to be done?

Comparison of black starship to a white one.


The originators of Star Trek realized that to roam the  galaxy a star ship would have to greatly exceed the speed of light and this was fraught with all kinds of problems. According to Einstein just reaching the speed of light is not possible. Another problem: at speeds near the speed of light time dilation would occur aboard the spacecraft making it impossible to keep clocks synchronized with those on Earth. The solution was the warp drive. By folding space it would be possible to greatly shorten distances facilitating travel to far away places in short periods of time at speeds well under the speed of light. However, warping space to get off the surface of Earth does not sound like a great idea. What's going to prevent part of Earth's atmosphere or surface from also being warped into outer space?

The Enterprise has impulse engines, a greatly updated type of thruster for tasks such as leaving orbit but they appear to point in the wrong direction (horizontally). Will the starship be carried aloft tug boat style by a small fleet of booster rockets that fall away as the Enterprise leaves the atmosphere? Who knows, maybe there will be a creative solution that bedazzles us--yeah, right--but we can still hope.

As for space battles, it looks like the new Star Trek is going to be full of them and largely according to the traditional models. We expected as much but it still leaves us longing for a little more reality in at least the details if not the big picture. For instance, the trailer shows a scene where Enterprise is under some type of attack which causes numerous small explosions on the ship's exterior along with the usual explosion sounds coinciding exactly with each explosion. These look like conventional black powder blasts laced with gasoline, yielding yellow orange fire balls with dark colored smoke swirling inside them.

On Earth as soon as the black powder in such a configuration explodes it bursts the gasoline container and ignites its contents. This creates a lot of hot expanding gases. As the pressure drops and the gasses cool, cold air (compared to the fireball) rushes in causing a swirling effect. So, where's the cold air in outer space? For that matter where's the sound?

In outer space any superheated gas or plasma is going to travel outward at very high velocity like a rapidly expanding soap bubble. Since there is no cool air to mix with it,  superheated  material from the explosion will probably glow longer than on Earth. The only way it can lose thermal energy is by emitting it as photons. Furthermore there will be nothing in outer space to slow the velocity of the material in the blast wave unless it hits a nearby spacecraft or is eventually attracted to a celestial body. Hence, the blast wave will be capable of doing considerable damage at a greater range than on Earth. Blowing up enemy space craft at close range could be a disaster. As for sound, the impact of high velocity particles would definitely make a sound inside the spacecraft they struck, but the explosion would otherwise be silent.

Star Trek's creators did seem to recognize that in order to detect enemy craft and maneuver, space battles would need to be fought at relatively slow speeds, the region where ordinary Newtonian physics work extremely well. At such speeds, when within visual range, there is virtually no possibility of missing with laser weapons or ultrahigh velocity particle bursts. Blasts from such weapons would arrive at the target long before the target could move a significant distance. Even ballistic weapons would work better in outer space. To its credit, Star Trek's creators responded to these problems by creating shields.

A little more reality in space battles would actually open up a world of creative possibilities, not to mention put an end to a great deal of silliness.

There's no air resistance to slow a projectile's velocity or gravity to make it fly in a parabolic arc. Projectiles would travel in straight lines at much higher than normal speeds. In outer space, helium balloons could be fired at higher velocities than machinegun bullets on Earth. Put something more interesting in them than helium and they could cause real damage or at least obliterate a spaceship's sensors by creating a cloud of plasma around it as they popped against its hull. Give the balloons a computer chip the size of a grain of rice and they could have enough artificial intelligence and networking capability aboard to exhibit flocking behavior and act as a decoys. 

As for cloaking, paint the ship black. From a distance, how is anyone going to see a black ship in the blackness of outer space. If that's not good enough, then put a big screen TV on one one side connected to a video camera on the other. Again, it's going to be extremely hard to see such a ship from a distance, and guess what: a real space battle isn't likely to be a toe-to-toe shoot out. Even on 21st century Earth, close range dog fights between fighter aircraft, while still a possibility, are no longer a requirement. Air to air missiles can be launched and aircraft downed well beyond visual range.

Of course, visible light isn't the only part of the spectrum that can make a spacecraft visible. In outer space, a spacecraft with interior temperatures warm enough to support human life would glow like a light bulb in the infrared spectrum, that is if not properly insulated. However, insulting it in the vacuum of space would be fairly easy: a few layers of aluminum foil with a millimeter of space between them would do nicely.

The truth is that it's surprisingly easy to please techno-nerds. Throw them a piece of reality and they'll be a movie's best friend. Mention the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey and techno-nerds all but wag their tails, even though the movie is often tedious and has an unfathomable plot. Why? Because it has numerous realistic features such as depicting outer space without sound.

Undoubtedly the new Star Trek story will have evolved from the original roots, possibly in positive ways. Let's hope it doesn't just simply become another mindless action movie whose main purpose is displaying special effects. JJ Abrams is a talented guy but it may be expecting too much for him to reach the standards of a true visionary like Gene Rodenberry. Nevertheless, let's hope he gives us something more than just a collection of updated visuals.


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