5 Star Trek Technologies That Are More Truth Than Science Fiction
It’s easy to get sucked in by the wild and wacky science of Star Trek, from beaming and materializing in other places, to the intense blast of deadly light from a phaser, to the incredible disappearing act called “cloaking” used by Klingon and Romulan starships. This sci-fi masterpiece has entertained generation after generation, and inspired inventions and new technology.
While much of Star Trek is a figment of the imagination, some of the technology is becoming more than just science-fiction.
Here are five Star Trek technologies that actually work.
One scene in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is classic. Scottie picks up a 1980s computer mouse and starts talking to it, like you can do with computers on board the Enterprise. Back then, it seemed super futuristic to talk to a computer, but that’s exactly what we do today.
“The computer science is some of the best stuff,” said David Batchelor, Computer Engineer for Data Systems with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “In Star Trek, you could make queries and find information about people, their past, their history, stuff like that. Of course, when police officers saw that they wanted one, and now there’s a similar thing in police cars. You can query a database and find out if a person is in there.”
You can also talk to your phone, and it answers back, something that seemed out-of-this world when Star Trek came out in the 1960s.
Antimatter as rocket fuel
In Star Trek, all you have to do is add a little antimatter to your engines, and off you go to explore distant galaxies and civilizations. Surprisingly, Batchelor said this technology could actually work.
“It’s a scientifically-feasible thing to do. Our scientists have created small amounts of antimatter, as small as atoms,” he said. “You can make an atom of anti-hydrogen and trap it in a magnetic field so it doesn’t get annihilated with normal matter. But that’s so difficult to do that we’re nowhere near creating the quantities you’d need for rocket fuel.”
Plus, anti-matter needs to be contained, or there could be explosive results.
“Suppose you had a starship orbiting the earth and there was a failure of the containment system,” Batchelor said. “So much energy would be released that you could blow away the atmosphere of the planet! There would have to be a ‘no fly’ zone around earth.”
Even though there’s a slight possibility of using antimatter as rocket fuel, warp speed is out of the question.
“There were some ideas that if you took Einstein’s Theory of Relativity you could create a bubble in space-time that would be moveable, but to do that you’d need something we know doesn’t exist: negative energy,” said Batchelor. “There are more studies that suggest if you did have negative energy, it wouldn’t be controllable, and if you tried to build a warp drive it would explode.”
He said space ships will probably have to cap out at the speed of light; there’s no scientific knowledge today that it’s possible to travel faster. But even going as fast as light has its own inherent risks. Every particle your ship slams into would also be going 186,282 miles per hour, which could, of course, be extremely dangerous.
The invisibility cloak
It’s incredible seeing those alien spaceships emerge from the black, starry sky after using their cloaking device. Even though this seems far out, scientists are making strides with invisibility.
“There’s a strange discipline called meta materials. They make soft pieces of materials that are constructed atom by atom and consist of little radio emitters and antennas and things of microscopic sizes,” said Batchelor. “If you surround an object with these pieces of material, the object can hide from detection at certain wavelengths of light. So, it’s not something that’s totally out of the question but it’s cumbersome. The Air Force is working on stealth of all kinds and I’m sure they’d love to have an airplane shielded from radar!”
At the University of Rochester, scientists are working on a cloaking device of their own called the “Rochester Cloak.” This technology uses a series of lenses to keep an object hidden from view at certain angles.
The tractor beam
While it might look really cool to watch the Enterprise pull objects closer with a beam of light, there’s a long way to go before this technology actually works.
“It is possible to use light beams to pull objects,” said Batchelor. “It used to be thought that a light beam would only push since light contains momentum, but scientists can modify light beams so they tug instead of push. But it’s not very strong, in fact, it’s quite feeble. It only works now for moving molecules around.”
In Star Trek, a single beam from a phaser can injure, or even kill someone. While this type of laser is far off from becoming reality, there is another large-scale laser that aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin made for the U.S. Army.
The laser can be used for protection against drones or large numbers of rockets and mortars. According to Lockheed Martin, the company used a laser weapon to disable a truck from a mile away in 2015.
Pretty powerful stuff, and we can only imagine what the future might hold for laser technology.
Even though we’re still in our technological infancy compared to Star Trek, NASA and private companies are working hard to get people beyond our worldly atmosphere.
“Everyone wants to go to Mars, but things are still in the practicing stages for that,” said Batchelor. “The next big advance is for people to practice space station capabilities, like orbiting the moon rather than the earth. Maybe we’ll put up a base on the moon inhabited by people before they go to Mars. The radiation issue of traveling to Mars also has to be addressed. For the amount of time it takes to travel to Mars, people will be exposed to a lot of radiation that’s harmful.”
But we keep marching forward toward that goal. New drugs are being manufactured that could protect human DNA from being destroyed by radiation. Scientists also need to figure out how to create oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere, and how to turn the planet’s ice into drinkable water.
While many of the science of Star Trek is a distant reality, we still share one insatiable need with those characters: to explore, to be inspired, to seek out new worlds, new life, new civilizations. Maybe someday, we’ll also boldly go where no one has gone before.