From the November 2011 issue

Even more Star Trek tech

Learn about the likelihood of encountering habitable planets or other civilizations during an interstellar journey as well as phaser weaponry.
By | Published: November 28, 2011
As scientists discover more exoplanets, an increasing amount appear to be at least potentially habitable. What are the odds that one of those planets might actually harbor intelligent life? NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Planetary perfection

Ensign’s log: While adrift, the Enterprise’s long-range sensors detected an M-class planet that may harbor life. The ship has taken a detour to investigate, and while in transit, Commander Data and I have reported to Stellar Cartography in order to research the possible habitability and composition of this Earth-type world.

The term M-class planet — referring to a planet ideal for earthlike life — is specific to Star Trek nomenclature. In the 21st century, scientists might refer to a “Goldilocks planet” that orbits within its star’s habitable zone, an area that leaves the planet not too hot (which could cause the atmosphere to evaporate) or too cold (which could make liquid water impossible). Such a planet would be ideally situated around its star to be “just right” for possible life.

Goldilocks planets are the focus of the Kepler space telescope’s years-long search, particularly among stars between 600 and 3,000 light-years away. Kepler’s goal is to study more than 100,000 stellar objects for signs of potential planetary systems. Already, thanks to Kepler and various other instruments, astronomers have confirmed nearly 800 exoplanets (planets orbiting stars outside our solar system) — and that’s in less than 0.5 percent of our galaxy! Dozens of these may be earthlike, meaning they have characteristics that could be conducive to supporting carbon-based life-forms similar to human beings.

Of course, this does not guarantee that a planet can support life; a multitude of other variables also apply. For instance, in our solar system, Mars resides partly in our Sun’s habitable zone, but the Red Planet also has a feeble magnetic field and thin atmosphere. These factors mean the Sun can “steal” away water from the surface, making it less than ideal for life as we know it. Other factors like tidal lock, toxic atmospheres, gaseous surfaces, and a profusion of seismic activity can also complicate an earthlike planet’s potential for life.

Despite everything, the possibility of livable worlds that we may one day colonize is enticing. Who knows: One day our “great8-grandchildren” may visit places like Vulcan or Risa.

Extraterrestrial transmissions
Ensign’s log: Now in orbit above the newly found planet, detailed sensor readings have confirmed it does support carbon-based intelligent life. Although the crew is elated to have discovered a new alien race, first contact is a delicate diplomatic event, and we must await Starfleet’s orders.

In 1961, Frank Drake, a pioneer in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), created a fairly simple equation for estimating the potential number of intelligent species capable of interstellar communication within our Milky Way Galaxy:

N = R* • fp • ne • fe • fi • fc • L


N = Number of intelligent civilizations capable of space communication within the Milky Way
R* = Average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = Fraction of those stars that have formed planets
ne = Number of those planets that have the potential to support life
fe = Fraction of those planets that do support life
fi = Fraction of those life-forms that are intelligent
fc = Fraction of those that can form civilizations capable of signaling into space
L = Length of time which these civilizations release messages

Well, maybe it doesn’t look that simple, but Drake was attempting to quantify an enormous question: How do we figure out if we’re alone? Think of Drake’s equation as a recipe: Take a handful of stars, give their planets a proper environment, let them develop life, give them ample time to travel in space, and you’ve got yourself a galactic civilization!

That being said, much of the Drake Equation relies on estimates using concepts and ideas we’ve only begun to understand, such as stellar formation and conditions for life. Although the equation itself is widely accepted among scientists, outcomes range from our galaxy hosting a single society (ours) to thousands of other civilizations, depending on individual choices for the variables. My own estimate suggests the possibility of 900 advanced civilizations in the Milky Way, and more than two million in the Virgo Supercluster. Even if the number turns out to be only two, how amazing would that be?

Ready, aim, fire!
Ensign’s log: En route to investigate a subspace reading, we’ve encountered a small band of Ferengi traders. Lieutenant Worf is suspicious of their intentions and has insisted we keep phasers armed and ready. Captain Picard is adamant that we will not use weapons unless attacked, but he has put Enterprise on red alert.

Phasers are a type of Directed Energy Weapon, a class of weapons that fires a focused, intensely charged beam of high-energy particles. Specifically, phasers use a Trek-specific particle known as a “nadion,” which is supposedly generated when ionized gas called plasma passes through a phaser conduit. These weapons can range from delivering a mild jolt to completely vaporizing an opponent.

A real phaser would deviate from Star Trek’s invention in quite a few ways. Actual phaser beams travel at the speed of light, but the Enterprise’s hand-held phaser blasts travel at approximately 50 meters per second, or 112 mph — most 21st-century bullets go faster! An alien with good reflexes could (and often did) dodge the weapon’s fire easily. Plus, the fictional phaser beams are also composed of individually charged particles, which means that in a subspace setting, they should be invisible! Sure, invisible weapons may be a bit anticlimactic on a television show, but the brilliant orange beam we see from Star Trek phasers just isn’t consistent with science.

So, how do we build an actual phaser? Scientists theorize that it could be possible by first cooling a charged magnesium atom to 1 millikelvin — just above absolute zero. Necessary for this process would be a magneto-optical trap, which is a device that basically produces extremely cold atomic samples using lasers in a magnetically polarized chamber. For our working phaser, a red laser beam would cool the atomic magnesium gas, followed by a blue laser that would excite the gas’ particles so that more of them are in an excited (more energetic) state than aren’t. (This is a condition known as “population inversion,” a fundamental part of laser technology.) Finally, the atomic gas manipulated by the first two lasers would produce a string of phonons —molecules that exist in a collective, excited arrangement. When strengthened via electromagnetic manipulation, these phonons can produce enough energy and radiation to mimic our desired product: a real, working phaser.

In fact, researchers working on this concept ( have suggested that calling such a device a “phaser,” from phonon laser, “has a better ring to it” than the alternatives. Who are we to argue with them?