The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

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The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Graham Kennedy » Mon Oct 12, 2015 3:11 am

So I was updating the YATI page for Star Trek II, and I wrote this :

And even if they didn't look up whether there were colonies on any of the planets for some reason, surely they would at least count the planets in the system when they arrived and notice one was missing!

Along those lines, the standard naming convention in Trek is (Star name) (order from the sun outwards). So Earth, being the third planet out from the star known as Sol, would be Sol 3. (They actually use Roman Numerals, but I'll use regular ones for the sake of simplicity.) Mars would be Sol 4, Neptune would be Sol 8, etc. Khan and his band were marooned on Ceti Alpha 5. Six months later, Ceti Alpha 6 exploded. Then the Reliant arrived, intending to investigate Ceti Alpha 6. Only since Ceti Alpha 6 wasn't there any more, they went to Ceti Alpha 5 thinking it was Ceti Alpha 6. So how does that make any sense at all? Even if the 6th planet is missing, how do you then mistake the 5th one for the 6th one? Wouldn't you still count out from the sun and then think that it's Ceti Alpha 7 that is actually Ceti Alpha 6? I mean, that would still be utterly stupid, because the 7th planet would still be in a completely different orbit than the place where the 6th planet was. But at least the problem then is that you didn't bother to look up the planetary orbits, rather than the fact that nobody on the ship can successfully count to six!

Of course, Khan does claim that the shock of the explosion shifted the orbit of Ceti Alpha 5. So are we supposed to believe that it shifted the orbit SO much that it actually moved Ceti Alpha 5 out right the way past the empty space where Ceti Alpha 6 was, then on out past Ceti Alpha 7 - which is the only way you could possibly think Ceti Alpha 5 was Ceti Alpha 6. But if so, then that's just absolutely ridiculous. Explosions in space don't actually produce a 'shock', because there's nothing for a shockwave to travel through. So you'd pretty much have to have a big chunk of Ceti Alpha 6 hit Ceti Alpha 5 with enough energy (and in the right direction) to boost its orbit right the way out to past Ceti Alpha 7. And do so without, say, smashing the planet into a million pieces when it hit it. And still leaving the environment of the planet survivable (consider the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Thosuands of times bigger that all the nuclear bombs built in the history of the world combined. This would be quadrillions of times bigger than that.) Which is impossible on just about every level.

And how does a planet just explode, anyway? Planets aren't made of dynamite! Earth has been around for a very long time, it's never just decided to explode!


So, our mission, should we choose to accept it, is this : What is the most plausible explanation for this issue? It doesn't need to be scientifically accurate as such... just something that could at least make sense, kinda.

As I see it, the explanation must cover these basic points.

Ceti Alpha VI must "explode". Prefereably, it must do so in such a way as to leave no traces of it behind (i.e., no asteroid belt.) Whilst they didn't say so, an extra asteroid belt left behind would have been kind of suspicious when the Reliant arrived.

Whatever happens to Ceti Alpha VI must shift the orbit of Ceti Alpha V. Other planets in the system may also have their orbits shifted, or not - Khan would presumably have no way to know what happened to them, so we can assume what we like.

The system must then be in such a state that a ship must be able to arrive and think that Ceti Alpha V is Ceti Alpha VI. I assume that even Paul Winfield takes enough time away from dying for the sake of white people to have learned to count at some point, so to me this says that Ceti Alpha V must end up as the actual sixth planet out in the system.

Whatever happens to Ceti Alpha V must damage the environment... but not so much as to make it uninhabitable per se. It was, from what we see, about like any Earth desert in the grip of a serious (quite possibly permanent) sand storm. As opposed to, say, being like the surface of Venus. To me, this means that we would ideally keep the orbital changes to it rather minimal.

I have a scenario in mind myself, but I want to see what others come up with before I post it!
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Griffin » Mon Oct 12, 2015 7:52 pm

With the aid of some crude diagrams, just to help me visualise it;

Here's the problem as it originally stands, where logical counting would lead you to what is actually Ceti Alpha 7. Enterprise maroons Khan, Ceti Alpha 6 explodes without a trace, the Reliant miscounts the number of planets.
Image
Here's the explanation Khan gives, where the explosion kicks Ceti Alpha 5 into a new orbit. The cons of this idea having already been discussed above.
Image

Spit-balling some ideas:


1. Ceti Alpha 6 exploded, and the debris formed into a new planet closer to the sun than Ceti Alpha 5.
Image
2. Another planet further in also exploded. Though then I realized that wouldn't work either;
Image
3. I had another idea, but I've since forgotten it.

Edit: A question for the more physics literate (with in all likelihood the wrong words in places). Would the removal of the mass of Ceti Alpha 6 from the equation mess with the gravity enough to just nudge Ceti Alpha 5 into an orbit where we see the apparent desertification? I'm thinking in a similar way to how Soran destroying the stars in Generations shifted the course of the Nexus.
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby McAvoy » Mon Oct 12, 2015 9:18 pm

As far as the relocation of the planet into a new orbit.

I suppose it could happen. But I also would see massive volcanic eruptions as something that massive like a planet being taken into a new orbit would mess with the crust of the planet.
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Graham Kennedy » Mon Oct 12, 2015 10:35 pm

Griffin wrote:Would the removal of the mass of Ceti Alpha 6 from the equation mess with the gravity enough to just nudge Ceti Alpha 5 into an orbit where we see the apparent desertification? I'm thinking in a similar way to how Soran destroying the stars in Generations shifted the course of the Nexus.

Love the pictures! :)

I would think that no, simply losing one planet would not be enough to change the orbit of another significantly. Planets just don't have all that much effect on one another. But it might change it a bit... maybe enough to ruin the climate.

Here's my concept :

Ceti Alpha system at the time of Khan's abandonment :

Image

Six months after the Enterprise leaves... a black hole passes through the system. I've shown all the planets on one side of the sun but at the time, the first five were almost al they way around on the opposite side of the sun. Ceti Alpha 5 and 6 were roughly at their closest point of approach.

Image

The hole passes very close to Ceti Alpha VI. The planet is torn apart and swallowed by the black hole. Some debris might escape, of course, but most of it is just pulled into the hole. Material is ripped apart right down to the subatomic level as it falls into the black hole, releasing masses of energy. So the planet would vanish in a colossal flare of light - appearing to explode.

Ceti Alpha VII, being further away, survived the process. But the orbit was shifted massively, hurling in towards the sun.

Image

Ceti Alpha VII settles into a new orbit between Ceti Alpha VI and Ceti Alpha V. The black hole passes on out of the system. The new position alters the orbit of Ceti Alpha V slightly - but slightly is all you really need to trash a climate. Hell, climates can throw themselves into chaos for no well explained reason as it is.

A couple of decades later Reliant arrives and heads towards the sixth planet out.

Image

But of course, as they discover, "THIS IS CETI ALPHA FIVE!!!!!!"

Now of course, we still have the fact that they didn't notice a missing planet. But hey, maybe they did and it was just mentioned offscreen. I can imagine them saying "Hey, there were seven planets here according to the Enterprise logs. Wonder what happened to the outer one? What a mystery, huh? Oh well, let the planetary dynamics lab worry about it. On with the mission!"

And we have to deal with the fact that they didn't notice the difference between the planets "Say, Ceti Alpha VI looks nothing like Kirk's logs said it should..."

But how much information did the Enteprise collect, really? We can certainly presume that they did a close-up scan of Ceti Alpha V since they had to go into orbit of it to drop Khan off. And we know their long range sensors can tell how many planets are in the system and roughly what kind of planets - there are occasions with dialogue like "Six planets in this sysem, one is class M". BUT, there's no reason to suppose that they went and did detailed scans of any of the other planets. Nor is there any great reason to suppose that the Reliant scanned any of the others - note that what they thought was Ceti Alpha VI is the outermost planet now, maybe they planned to work inwards so this was the first one they checked.

Of course it's still a pretty stupid mistake to make. But it's somewhat plausible!
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Graham Kennedy » Tue Oct 13, 2015 4:54 pm

Okay, I went ahead and posted an article on this subject to the main site. Check it out, I did much nicer graphics for it.
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby RK_Striker_JK_5 » Tue Oct 13, 2015 7:56 pm

I don't have much to add to the discussion, orbital dynamics not exactly my specialty. But it is a nice article, Graham. :) It's one of those things that makes you ponder how it'd happen.
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Graham Kennedy » Tue Oct 13, 2015 8:10 pm

Thanks!

Yeah, I do love stuff like this. There's a version of Star Trek in my head where a lot of the little technical details are just a little different... ships fight at reasonable ranges, planets don't just blow up for no reason, there are laws about telepaths not just scanning the mind of everyone they meet, stuff like that. Actually a lot of the novels are more like that, which is kind of cool.

And I'm always on the hunt for fresh ideas for new articles, so there's that.
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Captain Picard's Hair » Tue Nov 03, 2015 2:06 am

For a relatively minor point in a good movie, it's still a head-scratcher as it comes to the writing. It's not the weirdest thing Trek has put forth in a story but this at once posits a bizarre fit of astrological mayhem and makes the crew of Reliant look incompetent. A whole planet goes missing and a trained crew of scientists misses it!

The black hole scenario sounds as close as you can get to a reasonable explanation, though it still boggles the mind that the Ceti Alpha system is left in such a state that Reliant wouldn't notice the difference until Khan points it out. It's not a great trick of sensor technology to count the number of planets in a system, certainly not for Trek level of sensor tech. Even if you contrive circumstances to switch the orbits of two planets such that the planet in question is now sixth furthest out you haven't replaced the missing planet. Then, for two neighboring planets to be confused even to our present day capability (given a close enough look) they'd have to be quite close in basic features like mass and size. To further have similar atmosphere and magnetic field and similarities of more fine grained properties is an astronomical coincidence (excuse the pun). Reliant shouldn't have to invoke the isometric gravito-neutronic field scanner technobabble to notice it, and it shouldn't have taken exceptional effort by Enterprise to have taken these readings. It seems that this sort of logging is pretty routine for Starfleet, given what we've seen in the various television series.

On a more macro and detached view, it's a bit curious that one of the best overall pieces of Trek also showcases some of the annoying writing habits we lament here.
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Graham Kennedy » Tue Nov 03, 2015 3:43 am

My impression of TV and movie writers is that they don't really think things like being scientifically accurate are particularly important. Maybe sci-fi writers make more of an effort that most, but even then it's pretty marginal when compred to what looks cool or works well on a story level.

If I had to guess the logic behind that decision, I'd guess it went something like "Well, I want Chekov to have that moment where he beams down to this planet and he's doing his thing, and then he sees a sign on the container saying Botany Bay, and he's all like 'ohhhhhh CRAP!!!'. That will be a really cool moment. But if that's gonna work, then he has to not know it's Khan's planet in the first place. So how about we say they beamed down to the wrong planet. But why would they? Okay, a planet blew up and the system got all messed up."

The goal is to get the cool "Oh crap!" moment. The justification is pretty much just an afterthought.
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Re: The riddle of the Ceti Alpha system

Postby Mikey » Tue Nov 03, 2015 1:23 pm

I'd agree with that assessment, with the more cynical modification that the writers' lack of motivation isn't so much unconcern with being scientifically accurate so much as a general disregard for the audience to have any intelligent thought or the ability to distinguish the mere existence of a problem.
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