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Star Trek tech: how close are we to reaching 23rd-century technology?

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The crew from tile Starship Enterprise lands in theaters this month in a prequel to the famed Star Trek series. For the first time, fans will see how James Tiberius Kirk became Captain Kirk and how the rest of the crew ended up exploring outer space together.

During their adventures, the crew members use futuristic gadgets that allow them to beam down instantly to new planets, easily examine the sick, and cross the universe at faster-than-light warp speed. How realistic are these tricked-out tools? Read on to see how today's science stacks up against the world of Star Trek.

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1 TRANSPORTERS

"Beam me up, Scotty!"

The Starship Enterprise crew can instantly transport themselves to a new location. They do this by breaking down their bodies into their smallest components, or atoms, and then rematerializing in the location of their choice. However, there are some major challenges with this method of travel. According to physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek, the human body is made of approximately 10 octillion (that's 10 followed by 28 zeros!) atoms. To dematerialize a person weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds), it would take more energy than the amount contained in 1,000 hydrogen bombs.

Reconstructing a person would require an instruction manual for the transporter that described where each of those atoms goes. Krauss estimates that such a manual would contain more than 10,000 times the information in all the books ever written.

Still, some researchers remain undaunted: A team from the University of Vienna in Austria has managed to instantaneously transport individual electrons (negatively charged particles) and photons (particles of light) more than 143 kilometers (89 miles). But Krauss doesn't believe this will work on humans. "We're big, jumbled-up, complicated matter--very different from a simple electron," he says.

2 SICKBAY

"Live long and prosper."

In the 23rd century, healing the sick is usually a breeze. Dr. "Bones" McCoy, the medical officer, takes a crew member of the Starship Enterprise to the Sickbay and uses scanners to quickly diagnose the patient. If he needs to, he can perform surgery with lasers or give medicine with a needle-free "hypospray" device.

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Medicine is one area where we are rapidly catching up with Star Trek. Noninvasive scanners like X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) 'devices, and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans can take pictures of your insides, so a doctor can diagnose what ails you. Lasers are used to perform surgery on many body parts. And since 1985, a company named Bioject has been making devices like McCoy's hypospray. These work by using compressed air or springs to shoot out a stream of liquid medication at high speeds. The stream is so narrow and quick that it pierces the skin like a needle--minus the pain!

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3 TRICORDERS

"It's life Jim, but no as we know it ..."

After beaming down onto an unexplored planet, crew members want to know if it is safe to check out. A handheld device called a "tricorder" allows crew members to scan the environment for harmful compounds in the air or lurking alien life-forms.

Last year, researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, made a tricorderlike portable mass spectrometer. This device can identify chemical compounds and measure their amounts in the air. Normally, mass spectrometers weigh hundreds of pounds and the analysis takes a long time before it yields results. But scientists have been able to shrink the device down to the size of a large lunchbox. "That's batteries and everything," says R. Graham Cooks, leader of the Purdue research team. Once the air sample is taken, the data are transferred wirelessly to a computer that identifies the sample in fewer than five seconds. Cooks envisions a day when this device is used anywhere that chemical analysis needs to be done--maybe even on a faraway planet.

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4 WARP DRIVE

"Space, the final frontier ..."

Warp speed allows the Starship Enterprise to go faster than the speed of light, which is 300,000 km (186,411 mi) per second. So it takes the crew only hours to make trips that would normally take thousands of years. This enables the Starship Enterprise to travel deep into the galaxy.

Will we ever be able to go faster than the speed of light? "It's possible in theory," says author and physicist Krauss. Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity describes how space and time warp (bend) due to gravity (force of attraction between objects). His theory allows for warp speed to be accomplished by squishing the space in front of an object, like the Starship Enterprise, and stretching the space behind it. That way the object has to move only a few feet instead of a few light-years (distance light travels in one year; roughly equal to 9.5 trillion km, or 5.9 trillion mi). But, as with the transporter, traveling at warp speed would take a lot of energy.

Will we ever invent a warp drive that can bend space? Maybe your generation will find a way to overcome these technological hurdles. We still have 200 years to overcome all of these challenges before the Starship Enterprise and her crew embark on their 23rd-century mission: "To boldly go where no man has gone before."

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Learn more about the science behind other Star Trek gizmos, at: http://ssdoo.gsfc.nasa.gov /education/just_for_fun /startrek.html

PRE-READING PROMPTS:

* If you were making a television show set on a spaceship, what kind of gadgets would you want your crew to have access to? Why?

* What inventions that you use today could have been inspired by a work of science fiction?

DID YOU KNOW?

* While the Starship Enterprise can travel fast enough to cross solar systems in seconds, we have yet to find a way to go faster than the speed of light, which was first measured in 1676 by Danish astronomer Ole Romer.

* Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, was also the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek in a 1993 television episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

CRITICAL THINKING:

* In the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, viewers first encountered the "Holodeck," a simulated 3-D virtual environment facility that creates any environment complete with sounds, smells, people, and objects. While we haven't come that far, similar "virtual worlds" can be found today on the Internet, in games, and in many other places. What are some virtual worlds you can think of?. What are the pros and cons of interacting in a virtual world?

CROSS-CURRICULAR CONNECTIONS:

ART: Imagine that the producers of Star Trek have called you. They tell you that a sequel to their upcoming movie is already in the works and they want you to invent the alien creature that crewmembers will encounter on a newly discovered planet! On a separate sheet of paper, create a colored sketch of your alien. Use one or more of the characteristics of animals described in "Extreme Mammals" (p. 18). Label each part associated with the extreme mammals and describe how your alien uses these features.

RESOURCES

* If you're in the Detroit area between now and September 7, you can stand on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and see a collection of other sets and props from all of the shows and movies at Star Trek: The Exhibition. www.detroitsciencecenter.org/StarTrek.html.

* Read more about the scientific possibilities of the Star Trek universe in Lawrence Krauss's book, The Physics of Star Trek, Basic Books, 2007.

* Keep tabs on NASA's next generation spacecraft: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/constellation/main /index.html.

Star Trek

DIRECTIONS: Indicate whether the statements below are true or false by wrting a T or F on the lines.

-- 1. It is currently impossible to transport a person as they do on Star Trek.

-- 2. The Biojector uses needles to inject medicine.

-- 3. All mass spectrometers take hours to analyze data.

Answer

1. True 2. False 3. False
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Title Annotation:PHYSICAL: TECHNOLOGY
Author:Hamalainen, Karina
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 11, 2009
Words:1339
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