Obviously, the franchise's medical inventions have fascinated many people (special mention to the biobed designed by the University of Leicester), but Star Trek is also about exploring the universe, so let’s look at the spacefaring innovations that are becoming a reality.
In Star Trek Voyager, we encountered the Pralor's robotic asteroid mining pods, something that might become very common in the near future. There are several companies that plan to excavate asteroids, and although the legalities are not sorted, many are looking to the sky for precious and rare metals. In a nice coincidence, NASA is launching a mission to asteroid Bennu, where the probe OSIRIS-REx will collect a sample and return it to Earth in 2023.
Sample collecting would be much easier if we had tractor beams onboard our spacecraft, but they wouldn’t all work in space. The most powerful tractor beams are made using sound waves. Using sophisticated loudspeakers, researchers have been able to move, trap, and manipulate small objects, but they envision applications in medicine rather than in interplanetary warfare.
And we can’t mention Star Trek warfare without mentioning photon torpedoes. Surprisingly, creating such a weapon is not as farfetched as one might think; students at the University of Leicester recently showed how they could work in reality. These realistic photon torpedoes don't store antimatter but they use a particle cascade to produce a similar explosive effect.
Artistic impression of OSIRIS-REx collecting samples from Asteroid Bennu. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
But what about the franchise's more incredible technologies? Are they possible or at least plausible?
Star Trek's famous replicators made whoever invented them a very rich person. These devices are capable of creating almost every item and food out of thin air, by assembling them atom by atom following a model pattern.
In real life, we can manipulate individual atoms and create brand new molecules and materials. We can also copy nature and reproduce it in the lab. But can we make a true replicator?
"The answer is maybe," Jamie Gallagher of Glasgow University, who was recently involved in separating the fact and fiction of Star Trek for the Royal Institution in London, told IFLScience.
"The good news is that we're getting pretty good with 3D printers and synthetic food. We've already had the first lab-grown burger and you can 3D print chocolate at home, which is our first step towards a replicator. Feed in the correct ingredients and watch your meal or object appear before your eyes (slowly).
"The bad news, however, is that we'll never have replicators quite like the show, which can build a hot meal from the atomic level. We just don't have the energy or control of atoms to do that, but 3D printed chocolate isn't a bad consolation prize.”
3D printed chocolate.Tinxi/Shutterstock