The Catacombs Space: 1999 Catacombs Series Guides
Science Of Fiction

A look at the science in Space: 1999 by Martin Willey


Space: 1999 touched upon a number of the basic principles of physics. Four fundamental forces determine the interaction of all matter and energy. Two of these, the strong and weak nuclear forces, are confined within an atom; the electromagnetic force can also operate on a wide range of scales, and the last force, gravity, is only significant at large distances. The electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces have been shown to be related, and more comprehensive theories to unify all the forces as different aspects of one force are being proposed. Theories which seek to unify these forces are called Grand Unified Theories (GUTs) or, formerly, Unified Field Theories. In Black Sun, Koenig comments that he has a Unified Field Theory of his own.

A fifth fundamental force, acting as a weakly repulsive gravitational force, has been proposed. The first strong evidence of such a force appeared in 1998, when it was discovered that the rate of expansion of the Universe was accelerating. Whereas gravity diminishes rapidly with distance, anti-gravity grows stronger, so while its effects at a local level are undetectable, it is powerful at a cosmic level. One group of theories concerns gravitomagnetism, a subtle force created by the rotation of large masses. Related but more controversial are some theories about "gravity-shielding" using a rotating superconductor to reduce gravity.

"Space: 1999" depends on such an anti gravity force, making extensive use of a concept called variously "anti-gravity" or "artificial gravity". This is used in protective forcefields and to simulate full Earth gravity within Eagles and the Moonbase (in Black Sun Ryan's Eagle has anti-gravity screens and anti-gravity towers providing gravity for Alpha are converted into a forcefield; a monitoring device recorded the magnetic output of the artificial gravity system used in Nuclear Disposal Area One in Breakaway, as if it uses some principle uniting gravity and electromagnetism). Artificial or anti gravity is also mentioned in Ring Around The Moon (anti gravity shields on the Eagles), Another Time, Another Place ("artificial gravity"), Earthbound ("gravity control" used from an Eagle), War Games (Alpha's "anti gravity units"), Space Brain ("anti gravity screens" and "gravity control" in the Moonbase) and The Exiles (using an "anti gravity effect" to divert capsules in space). Strangely, a gravity tower appears on Earth in Another Time, Another Place. Artificial gravity, as seen in the series, is a very odd force, adding no inertia to spaceships and its influence declining over distance much more rapidly than gravity or electromagnetism (if the Eagle had true Earth gravity, the Moon would start to orbit it).

In "Space: 1999" gravity is often modified by unknown forces. Current scientific knowledge prohibits these effects, although the series proposes advanced technologies and even metaphysical forces far beyond human understanding. In The Last Sunset the Moon apparently gets full Earth gravity, while New Earth in New Adam, New Eve, a quarter of the size of the original is stopped from disintegrating under the gravitational tidal forces of the slightly larger Moon (evidently it is within 8500 km of the Moon, the Roche limit within which tidal forces become destructive). Magus stops the Moon in space, like the Triton probe in Ring Around The Moon, the Guardian in Guardian Of Piri and the Arkadians in The Testament Of Arkadia. Fortunately, when released the Moon immediately regains its former momentum.

In this last episode, Bergman comments "Gravity, or magnetic forces, could affect the course, the speed of an object the size of the Moon." Maya correctly contradicts this in Brian The Brain by claiming the one factor that could change the Moon's course is "a gravity pull from space." Electromagnetic forces operate in the formation of solar systems and within stars, but are otherwise negligible on the movements of planets and stars (unless Bergman's Unified Theory involves magnetic and anti-gravity forces). Bergman reveals an even worse misconception of scientific principles in Space Brain when he states that the only two practical schemes for changing the Moon's course are "shockwaves and anti-gravity screens". Anti-gravity is a made-up part of "Space: 1999" science. Shockwaves cannot operate in the vacuum of space, at least in the strength suggested here, or in Collision Course and The A B Chrysalis. Shockwaves are detectable in space, because it is not quite empty. But the diffuse atomic particles between planets and stars cannot transmit the powerful shockwaves that change orbits.

Electromagnetic forces are occasionally encountered in the series. The Nuclear Disposal Areas give off magnetic radiation: in other words, a magnetic forcefield, which could also trap energetic ionised particles. The Psychon ship in The Metamorph has its own magnetic forcefield, used to pull an Eagle to the planet: such a powerful magnet must involve tremendous amounts of energy. In New Adam, New Eve the Alphans are individually put in "magnetic field cocoons" so that they are correctly paired. Somehow they have been made into magnetic monopoles, a state that exists, if at all, only on a subatomic level. However, the scene suggests electric charges: those with opposite charges create an electric discharge between each other, while those with the same charge have no effect (magnetic fields would repel or attract, so that an extended hand would be deflected away or turned into a punch).

Lightning is a dramatic visual effect used in several episodes. In air, lightning occurs when the electric potential between two locations overcomes the insulating properties of the air between them: electricity flows across a path of highly ionised air molecules, the colliding molecules creating light and heat. The lightning forking through space in the episodes Breakaway (from the waste dumps), Matter Of Life And Death (striking the Eagle) and The A B Chrysalis (between the moons) has no medium across which to travel (the last is supposed to generate shockwaves, which also cannot travel through space for the same reason, as noted previously).

Blasting the Moon out of Earth's orbit is portrayed with essentially correct references to the laws of motion. The exploding waste dumps obey Newton's third law, propelling the moon like a rocket from the Earth. The acceleration, and thus the G forces which crush the Alphans to the floor, continues only as long as the nuclear waste is fissioning, then ceases when the velocity is constant. To accelerate the Moon to the parabolic velocity that would enable it to escape Earth orbit, and leave the solar system, would require a huge force. It is unlikely that the Moon could withstand such a force applied over only a short period of time.

During the course of the series, covering some seven years, the Moon passed through 22 planetary systems and encountered a variety of other interstellar objects. It takes the Moon just four days to travel between the planets in Devil's Planet and The Immunity Syndrome. Even if this is within a single solar system, the Moon must be moving extremely fast. As the course of the Moon is accidental, and the proportion of stars with planets, let alone Earth-type planets, must be small, it can be assumed that the planets we see the Moon visit are only a tiny fraction of the stars they pass. In Matter Of Life And Death Kano calculates they will pass ten million planets in 2543 years: that implies an Earth-type planet every eight months and a new solar system of uninhabitable planets every eleven days. Given the Year Two status dates, the actual rate was an Earth-type planet every 28 days in Year One, and every 179 days in Year Two.

The distance between stars is so large it is measured in light years: a light year is about ten million million kilometres, the distance that light travels in a year. If the Moon could get into a globular cluster, it could pass stars in months without going implausibly fast. Globular clusters are densely packed groups of stars. There are millions of stars within a diameter of 100 light years, hundreds or thousands of times closer than the Earth's sun to neighbouring stars. At the core, stars are as close as the planets in Earth's solar system. The stars are old, with low metal content, suggesting planetary formation may be rare. While gas giant planets like Jupiter are more common around high metal stars, rocky terrestrial planets like the Earth have been found around low metal stars, and in globular clusters. In 1993, a terrestrial-sized planet was found orbiting a double-star system (a pulsar and a white dwarf), probably captured from another star in the cluster.

The speed of light is a universal speed limit. When an object travels at increasingly higher proportions of the speed of light ("relativistic speeds") its mass, and the energy to accelerate it further, increases until at the speed of light both become infinite. However, at such huge velocities the Moon would experience the slowing of time relative to the rest of the universe, an effect known as "time dilation". This has happened according to the episode Journey To Where: on Earth 120 years has passed since the Breakaway, but the Moon, now light years away, has experienced less than two years. Time has slowed by 83 times, implying the Moon is travelling at 0.999927 of the speed of light. Time dilation is again mentioned in Bringers Of Wonder, and implied when the Alphans return to a future Earth in Another Time, Another Place.

The scenario is thus scientifically accurate as far as this goes, although there are a number of fundamental problems. The speed of the Moon through solar systems would be so rapid that the Alphans would pass planets in a blink of the eye. And moving through interstellar radiation at such a pace would bombard the Moon at a lethal intensity. Finally, the force required to propel the Moon at relativistic velocities really would have shattered it.

The series contains an alternative explanation of the Moon's voyage through space: Space Warps which abruptly transport the Moon over colossal distances. These are witnessed in several episodes: Black Sun (within a black hole, moving them "a million light years" to the other side of the Universe), Another Time, Another Place (returning them to Earth, then to another area of space) and Space Warp (shifting them five light years). They are also mentioned in The Metamorph (catapulting them six light years) and The Taybor (where the alien trader calls them the "doors into hyperspace"). Space Warps are the only way to explain how the Moon could be a million light years from Earth in The Testament Of Arkadia, or "five million light years away from Earth" in Missing Link. The Moon is, as noted in The Taybor, intergalactic: it is between galaxies in Dragon's Domain and separated from the Earth by an entire galaxy in Journey To Where. Apart from the remark of Helena in The Metamorph that the recent Space Warp was only their second encounter (which is a continuity error in any case), we can assume that Space Warps are very common in space and every few days randomly move the Moon between solar systems.

Taybor explains that his spaceship has a "jump drive" which enables it to enter hyperspace, just as the Moon enters hyperspace through Space Warps. Hyperspace is apparently some sort of dimension (or "non-dimension") separate from "common or garden continuum space": with the right co-ordinates you can emerge anywhere in the universe. The Alphans actually have there own hyperspace technology, used for faster-than-light communications. Koenig uses a hyperspace transmitter fixed to Taybor's ship to contact him in hyperspace; in The Testament Of Arkadia Koenig uses a similar "sub-space" transmitter, while in Collision Course and Space Brain the Eagles have "interstellar frequency" communications which are evidently quite different from electromagnetic transmissions. Comparable faster than light communications must be used in Mark Of Archanon, for the monitor transmitter is able to instantly inform a distant planet that prisoners have escaped.

Space Warps and hyperspace are not known to science, although science can suggest ways a Space Warp could work. At quantum scales, far smaller than the size of atoms, "wormholes" can link remote areas of the universe through "superspace", a scientific equivalent of hyperspace. These bridges have a positive electric charge and theoretically could be opened wide enough to transport atoms or larger objects. The electric fields to open the wormhole ends would have to be immense, and of course applied to both ends: Space Warps and communication through hyperspace are still far-fetched but not complete fantasy.

Several alien spaceships in the series are interstellar or even intergalactic in range. The Croton ship in Dorzak, the Kaldorian ship in Earthbound and the Daria in Mission Of The Darians are on long sub-light speed journeys. Some ships seem to be capable of relativistic speeds, such as the Voyager and Sidon ships in Voyager's Return which have passed through many solar systems in just fifteen years, and the even faster Archanon ship in Mark Of Archanon which arrives within hours of a faster-than-light message. The Betanon spaceship Menon in Space Warp is also able to detect its mothership disappearing into a Space Warp while twelve parsecs away, then crosses that distance (nearly forty light years) to try to find the Space Warp: even if it found the mothership instantly, it would have discovered over eighty years had passed.

The Dorcon ship in The Dorcons uses a meson converter to convert itself into energy and shift itself over "half the galaxy". By transforming into photons, the spaceship would be able to travel at the speed of light (an atomic bomb is another way of transforming matter into energy). Somehow the photons must remember to convert themselves back to matter. Time dilation will still occur, so the Dorcon empire will have aged 50,000 years while their leader chases after the Alphans. Time dilation would make alliances of many planets, such as Croton, Sidon and Dorcon, very difficult to administer, while civilisations with explorers such as Archanon and Betanon would also have severe problems. Planets will see generations pass, technology change and even species evolve before their space travellers and leaders will return from crossing the galaxy only days older.

A faster-than-light spaceship is seen in Bringers Of Wonder travelling 8 million miles in an on-screen time of six seconds, or over seven times the speed of light. Later we learn this is all an hallucination created by aliens, not a "loop in the space-time continuum", and the Alphans are being prevented from realising the fundamental scientific objections to this. Firstly, even reaching light speed requires infinite energy. Secondly, they wouldn't have been able to see the spaceship until after it arrived because the light reflected from it would be slower. Thirdly the Doppler effect, by which light waves from approaching objects are shortened, would make the image of the spaceship infinitely blue-shifted and therefore invisible. Fourthly, while time slows down for objects travelling closer to the speed of light, when that speed is exceeded time should go into reverse. This will also invalidate Koenig's argument that time dilation should have made the Earth visitors much older; by travelling back in time they could reverse the effect. They could then return the Alphans to Earth before the Superswift left, or even before the Moon left orbit.

The 1986 Uranus mission, seen in Death's Other Dominion, travelled "at unbelievable speed to the farthest limit of the then known universe". Presumably it was travelling faster than light and thus back in time, which would explain why when the Alphans find the crew they have already been stranded on Ultima Thule for 880 years. The same would be true in Journey To Where, in which an experiment tries to transport the Alphans faster than light back to Earth, but also sends them over 660 years back in time. To return to the Moon they would have to travel at sub-light speeds, using up 660 years waiting for space travel to be invented and the Moon blown out of orbit. In the episode the time travel is just an accident, but it is inadvertently good science.

Elementary particles

The universe can be divided into fundamental particles. Two classes can be distinguished: bosons and fermions. The bosons are the photon (light) and the graviton (gravity). Fermions can be divided into lightweight leptons (involved in electromagnetic interaction: electrons, muons and neutrinos), and heavier hadrons (involved in the nucleus of atoms: comprising the mesons and the baryons such as protons and neutrons, all made up of combinations of quarks held together by gluons). A wide range of exotic particles can be made from these families. The particles can also be regarded as waves, a dual nature which Etrec mentions he is learning ("wave particle analysis") in The Mark Of Archanon. We are introduced to a number of these particles during the series.

The Croton ship in Dorzak had a photon drive. Photons are particles which form electromagnetic radiation, from the high energy gamma rays, through X-rays, ultraviolet, the visible spectrum, infra-red to low energy radio. Photons alone could push a spaceship through space if it had sails to capture the light. Lasers at the origin and destination could be fired to propel the sail-ships, which would need only minimal fuel supplies for navigation and landing. The Croton ship had presumably folded its sails for landing when seen in the episode.

Taybor briefly mentions how he "hauled himself up by the graviton straps". Gravitons are particles of gravity.

Atoms are composed of a heavy nucleus made up of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, with lightweight negatively charged electrons orbiting the nucleus. The simplest and most abundant element, hydrogen, has a single electron, a single proton and no neutrons. When the electron is removed (it is "ionised"), the resultant hydrogen ion is actually a proton. In Matter of Balance a "propogatoscope" is seen which can bombard plant seeds with protons in order to create genetic mutations. The solar wind from the sun and cosmic rays from distant stars are mostly protons, and magnetic storms in the radiation belts around planets could be said to be proton storms, a phenomenon referred to in Death's Other Dominion.

Neutrons are released from the nucleus by radioactive decay or bombardment. They are difficult to shield against because they are not deflected by electric charge. According to Dragon's Domain space travellers fear neutron storms, although these are unknown to astronomy. Koenig is checking the neutron count at a nuclear waste dump in The Bringers Of Wonder part 1, a useful measure of radioactivity. In Voyager's Return the Queller drive used fast neutrons from an atomic engine to propel itself to great velocities. Fast neutrons are energetic neutrons produced from nuclear fusion (the neutron bomb uses them to kill people but minimise damage to property). Presumably pulsed fusion explosions accelerate the Voyager through space, and the idea of having a crew was discarded because of the massive shielding that would be required to protect them.

Neutrinos are mass-less neutral particles which travel at the speed of light, and are created in various nuclear reactions. They react with almost nothing, travelling through the Earth like a ghost. In Journey To Where they are used for communication with Earth, although the elusiveness of the neutrino makes this improbable. They do not travel "billions of miles in a matter of seconds" as stated in the episode (actually 186 thousand miles per second), and they certainly cannot cross galaxies or even constellations instantaneously as shown. The episode claims neutrino experiments had just begun when the Moon left orbit; actually the particle was discovered in the 1930s and first detected in 1956. It is not possible to use neutrinos to transmit matter from one place to another, as depicted in the episode.

Protons and neutrons are held together in an atomic nucleus by exchanging mesons. In The Dorcons, the eponymous aliens use a meson converter to transform their spaceship into energy, transmit it through space and reconstruct itself at the destination. As mentioned earlier, destroying all the matter in the spaceship is not a great problem, but there is no way of controlling what happens next.

Electrons are negatively charged particles with tiny mass which orbit the nucleus of an atom. They may be shared to bind atoms together as molecules, or shifted between orbits to release energy as in a light bulb, or flow through substances creating electricity, or be beamed by an electron gun to produce a television picture. All fundamental particles have an antimatter twin: the electron has a positively charged twin, the positron; the proton has a negatively charged twin, the anti-proton, and even the neutron has an anti-neutron with an opposite magnetic spin. "Positronic transfer" is quoted in One Moment Of Humanity as a method of transmitting people through space, much like the meson converter in The Dorcons, which was powered by "antimatter coils". Antimatter is a very good way of turning matter into energy, as when a particle collides with an anti-particle they mutually annihilate each other, turning into pure energy.

The Alphans have an antimatter bombarder in End Of Eternity, which unaccountably fails to destroy a fragment of rock. They encounter antimatter planets in Matter Of Life And Death and Matter of Balance. Anti-protons, anti-neutrons and positrons can certainly combine to make anti-atoms, and there is no reason why they could not go on to make anti-stars and anti-planets. As the episodes make clear, the normal-matter moon would be destroyed if it encountered any antimatter. According to Matter Of Life And Death, matter can change into antimatter via a theoretical state called "reversed polarity". This process has not been discovered by science but it is not implausible. Reversed polarity is a good description of antimatter. Matter of Balance is hopelessly confused about antimatter, inventing a neutrino-like parallel universe superimposed on the normal universe, where time is reversed. This is complete nonsense, for antimatter or any other type of matter.

In Death's Other Dominion epsilon rays are referred to, and we are introduced to lambda waves in The Lambda Factor. These seem to be wave patterns perhaps in radio wavelengths rather than particle radiation.

Matter transportation

The plants in The Rules Of Luton enable one alien to transport themselves instantly to distant locations. This skill is also seen in the Deltans in The Last Enemy. Many aliens can accomplish this with technology. In Ring Around The Moon the process is explained: "They can decompose atoms. Reduce an object to its atomical components, pure energy, transport it through space and reassemble it in another place." "Back on Earth they've been working on that process for over fifty years." "With machines. They do it with light." This explanation is confused ("atomical" for atomic; atomic components are not pure energy; no-one on Earth has ever worked on that process), and vague. An alternative explanation was the use of space warps and superspace in The Taybor, which enabled Taybor to transport himself into Moonbase. Other aliens used a variety of jargon: "neutrino transmissions" in Journey To Where, "positronic transfer" in One Moment Of Humanity, "meson converter" in The Dorcons, and "transbeamer" in Devil's Planet. Instantaneous matter transport appeared in many other episodes. Despite being popularised in Star Trek it is impossible. Dissembling an object into elementary particles or energy is relatively easy (that's what a nuclear bomb does). The object being transmitted must be accompanied by a detailed description of how to reconstruct it, including the state of every chemical process at that precise time. Unfortunately a law of physics (the Heisenberg principle) dictates that the position of subatomic particles cannot be determined exactly, which means errors will occur. Reconstruction would be a huge and complex task, organising every atom into its correct position before they can resume chemical reactions.

Other psychic abilities frequently appeared, such as telepathy (Missing Link, Collision Course), clairvoyance (The Exiles), telekinesis (The Exiles, The Lambda Factor), mind probing (Devil's Planet) and mind control (Dorzak, The Bringers Of Wonder, All That Glisters and many others). According to The Lambda Factor the lambda variant is a very rare electrical pattern found in the brain associated with E.S.P. In Dorzak the term "organic psycho-waves" is used. The implication is that brains contain some transmitter and receiver rather like radio, but not on the electromagnetic spectrum. Psychic abilities can make entertaining fiction, but they are impossible in reality.

Contents copyright Martin Willey