Star Trek’s Photon Torpedoes Are Almost Possible

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Engaging the general public with science tends to be much easier under the glossy film of science-fiction, so it’s not surprising that the latest publication from the University of Leicester’s "zany" science projects focuses on Star Trek, what with the recent release of Star Trek Beyond.

Four students calculated what you would need in order to build realistic photon torpedoes from the Star Trek universe, and it turns out the science is not too complicated.

In the show, the torpedo has an antimatter chamber that, upon detonation, interacts with normal matter to create an intense explosion. In the real universe, antimatter can’t be stored, so a different mechanism is necessary to generate the matter-antimatter annihilation. The team proposed a phenomenon known as an electromagnetic cascade, which is the product of a particle shower when a high-energy particle hits some dense material.

The initial particle would generate matter and antimatter particles that would liberate energy and more particle pairs, creating the desired chain reaction.

Using the show's fictional yield, based on 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of matter and antimatter, they estimated that it is possible to create an electromagnetic cascade with the same energy release. To fit inside the 2.1-meter-long (6.9-foot-long) torpedo, this chain reaction would require the use of a heavy transition metal (such as iron, lead, or uranium) as the dense material target.

The findings are published in the journal of Physics Special Topics, a peer-reviewed student journal run by the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Quirky science aside, the researchers did also spot an important complication in their model. The ignition of the photon torpedo requires very high-energy gamma-rays or lasers, beyond our current technology but maybe readily available in 2233, when photon torpedos were first used in Star Fleet.

Star Trek is often hailed as being quite prescient with technology, having predicted mobile communicators, teleconferences, and tractor beams. Maybe the photon torpedo can now be included on the list, and let’s hope that warp speed and world peace might soon be around the corner too.

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