Science of the Stars

From Station

Science of the Stars

by Caroline Post, FNN News Anchor, Kepler News


This morning, I took the opportunity to descend into the dungeons of the station to the Science Labs in Pod C. With USS Harbinger taking so many department heads, the Science Decks are all but empty. However, I found CPO Xander Richard Price at his desk, and he agreed to tell me a little bit about stellar cartography.

You may not be aware that all of us depend on maps of the stars to figure out where we are. Making those maps is the complicated business of CPO Price. He told me, "I actually like drawing them by hand, a little of the old-style cartographer's skill set. However, when you are mapping a quadrant, a hand drawn map won't do."

He showed me some of the maps he has. "I take calculations of star distances, measurements of the number of celestial bodies orbiting said stars, collate them with known and unknown space debris and artificial objects, and enter them into my cartography system here."

Price made it all sound so easy! However, it takes hours and hours, sometimes days or weeks, of observations, measurements, and collating before it's ready to go into the cartography program. He added, "Then the system helps me put together navigational charts useful to starships or amateur cartographers."

It's easy enough to see why starships would find such maps useful, but what about amateur cartographers? Why would they need his maps? And what do the maps look like?

The Chief told the computer to show me the Romulan Neutral Zone, omitting classified material. It was amazing to see it all spread out on the screen, landmarks, points of interest, installations, stars, comets, nebula, everything we know about the region in one place. It was also beautiful! "An amateur cartographer could get this data," Xander pointed out to me, "and use it to improve his craft. I've come across pirate maps - maps that aren't official, but are quite detailed."

I asked Price what he meant by pirate maps. Are they maps used by pirates?

"No, not pirates . . . just unsanctioned maps, in the same way that WKDK is a pirate music broadcast. It isn't actually affiliated with Kepler.

He also told me, "Sometimes they go so far as to calculate unseen objects by virtue of running the map's calculations and using gravity fluctuations to find the things not shown."

That sounds like ancient methods of studying the stars, I thought. Stellar cartography is both ancient practices and new. We're mapping the stars, sometimes as hit-or-miss as the 20th century, and yet because of our up-to-date equipment, those methods become much more accurate.

The map showed an incredible amount of color. "Is this what it actually looks like, or is this colorized in some way?" I asked him.

". . . the stars are roughly the color of the corresponding real star. Those blue triangles are known listening posts and starbases along the border. It's a . . . collage of astronomical data, and it's been taken with many filters - infra-red, for example - to produce this map. If you were standing somewhere and could see the whole region this way, it wouldn't be quite as colorful. "

Next, CPO Price showed me a pirate version of the Romulan Neutral Zone overlaid on the original official map. "The thing about pirate maps is they are often made by amateurs. And unlike music broadcasts, which just take up some bandwidth, a pirate map can have anomalies which could throw you light minutes to light years off course."

It was easy to see what he meant. Some of the images on the overlay were only a small amount off, but some were as much as 3 cm off. I couldn't do the math in my head, but I could see that using the pirate map would be a recipe for disaster.

"So how does the person buying the map know if he's getting a 'real' map or one of the pirate maps?" I wondered.

"If it's a commissioned ship from one of the stellar governments, then you can be certain they have stellar charts from the archives of their science institute. . . Where it becomes tricky is if you are an independent trader, or, for the sake of argument, a pirate.

You might not be able to afford an 'official' set of charts," he continued. "Or say the worst happened and Kepler's charts got wiped from the archives, and I had to build them all from scratch . . . that could be interesting."

He laughed, "But the biggest market for these things is people like me who simply like to collect maps."

I had come down to Price's office for an interview of the man, but was fascinated by this look into Stellar Cartography. I never imagined how interesting science could be. I've always taken for granted, when I got on a Federation vessel, that I would somehow wind up where I was going, still in one piece. Now I was seeing that there could be pitfalls, maybe not for me or for you, but for someone who is at the mercy of non-Federation vessels.

Are there instruments that you use for the mapping, or is it all done by computers?" I asked the map maker.

"The calculations are done using long range scans, sort o like those a science station on a starship might take, but somewhat more complex. We use sensitive telescopes as well, but I run all my calculations through the algorithms programmed into the astrometrics lab," he explained.

CPO Price showed me a variety of space pictures, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in his lab. The only drawback was that the picture of an ancient scientist peering through a telescope and scribbling notes are now a fantasy. I've seen the real thing, and it's mind-boggling.