As early as when watching Star Trek: The Original Series as a teenager in Germany, I wondered about the purple and orange planets the crew seemed to be orbiting every other week. From my astronomy books, I knew that the planets in our Solar System were certainly interesting and colorful, but they didn’t have quite that sherbet-like coloring from Star Trek. Much later, while in astronomy graduate school and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, I noticed again that the astronomical phenomena the crews encountered looked… not quite real.
(Images are from the 1995 Hubble Space Telescope Eagle Nebula press release)
Fast forward another couple of years, and I found myself working as a data analyst at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, looking at incredibly beautiful images of various astronomical objects every day. So it occurred to me that it would be very cool if science fiction shows and movies would use real NASA images instead of making up fake ones. The right opportunity came along during Star Trek: Voyager, when I was in contact with some of the folks doing the special effects. Mostly I sent just-released Hubble images; sometimes the crew asked for something specific. For several years Hubble images appeared in Star Trek: Voyager. They were often used on the computer screens in the astrometrics lab, which of course was Seven-of-Nine’s area of expertise.
Being that Voyager was set in the Delta Quadrant, on the other side of our Galaxy, any images showing objects associated with our Solar System, like planets, obviously would not work. However, nebulae and other less well known objects from the Alpha and adjacent Beta Quadrants, and even a few other galaxies, stood in for various phenomena in the Delta Quadrant.
In the image below, Ensign Harry Kim, Lt. Tuvok, Seven-of-Nine, and Neelix are contemplating their current predicament.
So what exactly is on the screen behind Neelix? What you see there is the top of the tallest pillar in the “Pillars of Creation” of the Eagle Nebula (M16), in the constellation of Serpens, about 6,500 light-years from Earth, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995.
The Eagle Nebula is one example of a star forming region. Inside, clouds of interstellar gas and dust, dense clumps of this material collapse from their own gravity. This process builds intense heat in the core of the clump, which finally triggers the nuclear fusion that is the furnace in the cores of all stars. Thus stars are born. Eventually the remaining cloud material will disperse and we will see the young stars. This process takes at least hundreds of thousands and sometimes billions of years, so we need to look at stellar cradles at different stages of this process to figure out what exactly is going on. The Eagle Nebula is special not only because of its beauty, but because it shows us this star forming process very dramatically. The pillars are regions of higher density, that’s where the new stars are forming. The three pillars are part of the much larger nebula. Some of the hot young stars in less dense regions are blasting the pillars with their energetic UV radiation, heating up the outer layers of the pillars, and causing the gas to stream away from the surface.
If you would like to know more about the Voyager-Hubble connection, stay tuned for some exciting news in the near future (I’m sworn to secrecy; it’s the usual “If I tell you I have to vaporize you” sort of secret).
Inge Heyer is an avid Star Trek fan and frequent convention guest. After earning a BA in physics and astronomy, Heyer obtained a master's degree in astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Later, as a senior data analyst at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, she worked on images received from the the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide-Field and Planetary Camera 2. More recently, she led the outreach efforts for the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii and is currently pursuing her doctorate degree in Science Education.