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Nature imitates art

Week of June 29, 1998

On June 26 and 28 I attended, by invitation, a local Star Trek convention in Baltimore, Maryland. I gave a couple of talks at the con; one was on supernovae and was relatively unremarkable, but the other one, which I titled "The Astronomy of Star Trek: Art vs. Nature", is pretty good fodder for this week's Snack.

The talk was mostly about how Trek, over the years, has treated the topic of astronomy, which to be honest is a big part of the show. Now, of course there have been a lot of errors; sometimes it's because the topic wasn't as well known then as now (which is appropriate mostly for the original series), or because of plot needs (like, warping around the Sun to go back in time), and of course sometimes it's just a plain old mistake (like having stars flash by while the Enterprise is still inside the solar system). But I'll go on record here and say that a lot of the astronomy is correct as well; the galactic map they use in Star Trek: Voyager, for example, is pretty good! Since I am The Bad Astronomer, I get email sometimes asking me about the astronomy of Star Trek. What I usually tell people is that it is not remarkable how much is incorrect; what amazes me is that a canvas as rich and involved as Trek gets as much right as it does! They have also done a beautiful job making graphics of such exotic locales as nebulae and binary stars, too, as well as use real Hubble images of astronomical images in Voyager. These are good examples of art imitating nature.

But sometimes nature imitates art. Regular readers are aware of my involvement with STIS parallels (I recommend reading the parallels page linked here before reading the rest of this Snack!. Briefly, STIS is a camera on board Hubble, and sometimes takes images of areas of the sky nearby where another instrument on board Hubble is pointing (we say the instruments are operating in parallel, which is why we call the images "parallels"). We don't know what might be in these images before they are taken; usually, STIS is the most sensitive camera ever pointed at that place! We have seen stars, galaxies, nebulae, all sorts of odd and beautiful objects when we peruse the images.

A few months back, I was looking at some parallels when one caught my eye. It looked faintly like a couple of galaxies that might be interacting, so I processed the images a bit to clean them up. What came out made me laugh so loud that people I work with came over to see what had happened. They all saw it at once; but just to be silly I placed a caption on the image and sent it around to everyone.

image of two galaxies

I was able to calculate the distance to that object in the lower right corner of the image using another capability of STIS; if they are galaxies, they are well over a billion light years away! Of course, if it's a starship, it's considerably closer...

Oh, and one more note: a few months back, Andre Bormanis, who is the science advisor for Trek, gave a talk about Star Trek where I work. I showed him this image and he thought it was pretty funny (well, it is pretty funny!). He also said he'd show it to Rick Berman, who is the executive producer of all things Trek. A moment of fame for the Bitesized Astronomer! I wonder if we'll ever see it on Voyager in the astrometrics lab... ;-)

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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