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The Ceti Alpha Conundrum


Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan is a great movie. It's certainly the best of the Star Trek movies. It is not, however, a perfect movie. Ever since I saw it as a kid something always bugged me about it, so I've decided to finally sit down and put down my thoughts about it along with the best I can manage in the way of an explanation. I have dubbed this the Great Ceti Alpha Planet Conundrum!

Thanks go to DITL forum member Griffin, who contributed some ideas used in this article including the idea of ilustrating the various concepts with nifty graphics.

Star Trek's Planet Naming Convention

Star Trek's planet naming convention is one of using the name of the local star, followed by a number for each planet in order from the sun outwards. Roman numerals are usually used for the numbering. Planets may also have a more casual name - so in our system the star is called Sol, with the planets in order from the sun outwards being Sol I aka Mercury, Sol II aka Venus, Sol III aka Earth, Sol IV aka Mars, Sol V aka Jupiter, Sol VI aka Saturn, Sol VII aka Uranus and Sol VIII aka Neptune. Pluto isn't called Sol anything, because it's not a planet. Don't complain to me, it's all Neil De Grasse Tyson's fault. Who would have thought that here in the primitive 21st century, we already have a man who is so awesome that he can destroy an entire planet?

Ahem. Sometimes this can get confusing because there are occasions where the main star in a system seems to be named after the inhabited planet. So for example in the Bajor system, the sun is called Bajor, the planets are called Bajor I to Bajor XIV, and the eleventh planet, Bajor XII, is called... Bajor. Imagine if our sun was called Earth, and the planets Earth I, Earth II, Earth III - also known as Earth - Earth IV, and so on. Oh, and the people from Bajor XII are called Bajorans. Those Bajorans lack imagination if you ask me.

This notation isn't always followed; we've seen many planets called by a name with 'Prime' at the end of it - Cardassia Prime, Ivor Prime, Rakella Prime, Volchok Prime... there are several dozen such planets in Trek canon. One can only guess at why a planet gets that designation - perhaps it's the biggest, the most politically important, the only on which life evolved, or something else.

And there are plenty of other variations and oddities, too - for example in "The Naked Time" we encounter the planet Psi-2000. Surely this wasn't intended to suggest that there were two thousand planets in that star system? In Deep Space Nine's "The Siege of AR-558" we see the titular planet, which again surely isn't intended to be the 558th planet out from the sun. In TNG's "The Enemy" we saw Galorndon Core.

And so on. However, the (Star Name) (Order of planet) system is in place most of the time, and this is the system that concerns us. The important point is that the numeral designates how many planets out from the sun the one we're talking about is.

Space Seed

At the end of The Original Series episode "Space Seed", Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew manage to subdue the bad guys and take them into captivity. Kirk decides not to prosecute them for their evil deeds, and instead offers up a challenge :

Kirk: : "Mister Spock, our heading takes us near the Ceti Alpha star system."
Spock: : "Quite correct, Captain. Planet number five there is habitable, although a bit savage, somewhat inhospitable."
Kirk: : "But no more than Australia's Botany Bay colony was at the beginning. Those men went on to tame a continent, Mister Khan. Can you tame a world? "

So Khan and his followers are dropped off on the fifth planet out in the Ceti Alpha system, a harsh but liveable place. Naturally, this planet is called "Ceti Alpha V". Presumably Khan and his followers gave it another more homely name, but that's neither here nor there. Here's our hypothetical model of the Ceti Alpha system as visited by the Enterprise in 2267 :

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Note that Space Seed's mention of "the fifth planet" confirms that there are at least four others in the system. I've chosen to add a couple of extra planets for reasons which will become clear as we go on.

Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan

In Star Trek II, the Starship Reliant is introduced with a Ship's log entry :

Chekov: : "Starship log, Stardate 8130.4. Log entry by First Officer Pavel Chekov. Starship Reliant on orbital approach to Ceti Alpha VI, in connection with Project Genesis. We are continuing our search for a lifeless planet to satisfy the requirements of a test site for the Genesis Experiment. So far no success."

Scanning the planet from orbit, Captain Tyrrell is given this report by one of his officers :

Beach: : "Limited atmosphere, dominated by craylon gas, sand and high velocity winds. It's incapable of supporting lifeforms."

So the Ceti Alpha system has a further, sixth planet which is apparently incapable of supporting life. All well and good. But then Commander Chekov picks up what may be a minor life form reading, Captain Tyrrell and Chekov beam down to investigate. They find themselves in a desert with a terrible sandstorm going on. Unpleasant as it looks, Chekov reports :

Chekov: : "Captain, this is the garden spot of Ceti Alpha VI!"

Nevertheless, they soon find Khan and his followers scratching out a living on the planet. Which means, it appears, that they moved there after Kirk left! What an impressive achievement that must have been, they would have to build their own interplanetary spaceship! And Apparently Ceti Alpha VI is not so incapable of supporting life after all. Poor job by Mister Beach there, if you ask me. But as we shall see, this is just one of the screw ups today.

Tyrrell and Chekov are rapidly captured. The following conversation ensures :

Khan: : "...Admiral Kirk sent seventy of us into exile on this barren sand heap with only the contents of these cargo bays to sustain us."
Chekov: : "You lie! On Ceti Alpha V there was life, a fair chance!"
Khan: : "THIS is Ceti Alpha V!"
Chekov looks stunned
Khan: : "Ceti Alpha Six exploded six months after we were left here! The shock shifted the orbit of this planet and everything was laid waste. Admiral Kirk never bothered to check on our progress. It was only the fact of my genetically engineered intellect that enabled us to survive. On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince. With power over millions!"
Chekov: : "Captain Kirk was your host! You repaid his hospitality by trying to steal his ship and murder him!"
Khan: : "You didn't expect to find me... you thought this was Ceti Alpha VI!"

So, not only have the Reliant bridge crew declared a planet to be uninhabitable when it is, in fact, habitable... they've gone to the wrong planet! Talk about having an off day!

So, here is the version of events that the narrative has presented us with :

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The Great Ceti Alpha Planet Conundrum is... how the hell does the USS Reliant crew then arrive and think that Ceti Alpha V is Ceti Alpha VI?

Look at the third diagram and think about it. You arrive in that system and you look a the planets. You point to Ceti Alpha I and go "Hmmm, there's Ceti Alpha I," then point to Ceti Alpha II and go, "and there's Ceti Alpha II," then you look at Ceti Alpha III and go "there's III," point to Ceti Alpha IV and say "and there's Ceti Alpha IV," point to Ceti Alpha V and go "and there's Ceti Alpha VI. Yep, that's right, planets one, two, three, four, and six. Okay, head for that sixth one."

How does that make any sense? Are we supposed to assume that these people can't count?

The only way it would make sense to confuse Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI would be if an extra planet had been added somewhere inside of Ceti Alpha V. Losing one in the outer system in and of itself just doesn't cut it. If anything, they should have thought that Ceti Alpha VII was Ceti Alpha VI!

The explanation that Khan offers is that the shock of the explosion "shifted the orbit" of Ceti Alpha V. This doesn't really work on any front. For one, planets don't just spontaneously explode. Planets are big balls of rock or big balls of gas, neither of which is particularly prone to exploding for no reason. For two, space is a vacuum. As such it doesn't conduct sound (so yes, no one can hear you scream), and it doesn't conduct explosive shockwaves (which are really just the big brother of sound).

But let's be generous. Let's say that Ceti Alpha VI exploded, and fragments of the planet hit Ceti Alpha V. The impact of those fragments changed the orbit of Ceti Alpha V, throwing it to a place where you could mistake it for Ceti Alpha VI.

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In other words, we are supposed to believe that it shifted the orbit SO much that it actually moved Ceti Alpha V out right the way past the empty orbit where Ceti Alpha VI used to be, then on out past Ceti Alpha VII.

This would actually work to explain why they would think Ceti Alpha V was Ceti Alpha VI. It's still stupid, but it's at least kinda plausible if you don't think about it too much.

The problem comes when we do a bit of that thinking and consider the energy involved. The kinetic energy of an object is given by 1/2 m v^2 (m for the mass in kg, v for the velocity in m/s). Plugging in numbers for the Earth, we find that our planet has about 2.6x10^33 Joules of kinetic energy. That's an awful great lot. In fact if you took the biggest nuclear bomb ever exploded by mankind and made seven billion of them - enough to give one to every single man, woman and child on Earth - and then set them all off at once, the resulting energy would be about 1.7 million times smaller than the Earth's kinetic energy.

Even just adding enough energy to make the Earth's orbit a modest ten percent larger than it currently is would require about 2.4x10^32 Joules. A mere one hundred and sixty thousand times more than every person on Earth exploding their own giant H-Bomb. And remember, an impact isn't just going to impart kinetic energy. Impacts also cause fire, shatter rocks, make a big bright flash, all that kind of thing. So in fact the impact energy would have to be rather more than this.

The trouble is, nobody could possibly survive such an impact. Remember that asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs? It killed most of the life on Earth and made the planet barely habitable for a long time afterwards. Well, this impact would be about half a billion times worse than that one. Genetically engineered or not, there is simply no way that Khan and his followers could possibly have survived it. In fact it's a good bet that the planet itself wouldn't even survive it - that's about as much energy as you would need to completely and permanenty shatter the entire planet.

So the explanation given by Khan really doesn't make sense. The above scenario cannot be true.

Alternative Theories

So here's a thought. What if Ceti Alpha VI exploded, and then the fragments were thrown into an orbit inside Ceti Alpha V, and then they collapsed to make a new planet?

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This really doesn't work. The timescale would be badly off - there's no close consensus on just how long it takes for a planet to form, but opinions amongst experts are that the Earth took anything from one million to ten million years to form. Maybe the experts are off, maybe they're far off, but it's clearly a bit ridiculous to claim that it could happen in 20.

But this does point us towards a possible solution. For Reliant to mistake Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI, we really need another planet to be added to the inner system. If we can't form a new one, then we have to move one of the existing planets there.

And remember, none of this happens spontaneously. So we need some sort of outside cause that can simultaneously make one planet explode whist significantly shifting the orbit of another. Can anything do that? Well, there is at least one candidate.

The gravitational force produced by a body is given by the equation F = GM/r2 - where G is a constant, M is the mass of the object, and r is the radius of the object. When a very large star reaches the end of its life, it explodes in a supernova. The core of the star is collapsed inwards by the blast, becoming massively dense as it shrinks - actually the process isn't too dissimilar to how a nuclear bomb works. Since the mass of the core remains the same, and the radius of it is shrinking, the gravity at the surface of the core gets bigger... and bigger. Eventually the core shrinks past a critical radius where the gravity at that radius is so high that nothing can escape from it - because to escape from it you would need to go faster than the speed of light. With even light itself trapped inside this radius, the star has become a black hole.

(In passing I should mention that in theory, since a Starfleet ship can go faster than the speed of light, it should actually be able to fly out of a black hole. But if you've fallen into a black hole in the first place then honestly, having engines that can pull you free is really the least of your problems.)

So let's postulate that shortly after Kirk and the Enterprise left Khan behind, a black hole passed through the Ceti Alpha system. It passes very close to Ceti Alpha VI - perhaps even passes through it, or at least grazes it. The gravity of the black hole rips the planet apart and swallows it. Although light cannot escape from the black hole itself, material that falls into it is torn apart in a process called spaghettification (yes, really), and as it is ripped apart it radiates a great deal of energy. So oddly enough, black holes aren't really black but rather radiate rather a lot of energy - in fact in the world of Star Trek this is how Romulan warships power themselves, by harnessing energy from an artificial black hole of some sort.

So to Khan's point of view on Ceti Alpha V, Ceti Alpha VI would suddenly flare up very brightly, then vanish. He'd think it had exploded, which in a sense it had. He wouldn't realise that a black hole was involved. Remember, as Spock put it, "He's intelligent, but not experienced." And he probably didn't have any futuristic sensors that could scan across planetary distances. Hell, he probably didn't even have a telescope.

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Now the black hole continues on its way and encounters Ceti Alpha VII (here's the reason I put a seventh planet in the system!). This time it doesn't come nearly as close as before, so Ceti Alpha VII isn't destroyed - but its orbit is radically shifted, throwing it into the inner solar system into a new orbit inside Ceti Alpha V.

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All this has to happen with relatively minimal disruption to the rest of the solar system. To facilitate that, the black hole needs to be reasonably small - massive enough to consume and move planets, but not nearly as massive as a star is. That's not so implausible, though. Our sun is approximately three hundred thousand times more massive than our planet is. So there's plenty of room to have a black hole that is, say, a thousand times as massive as a planet, and yet it would still be hundreds of times smaller than a star.

The next element is the effect on Ceti Alpha V. Remember, Khan said that the orbit had been shifted. We can assume he is right about that, because it wouldn't take any great scientific instrumentation to work out that your planet's orbit had shifted. Simply measure how long the year is, and if it's gotten longer or shorter, your orbit has shifted. Nor would it take a great deal of shifting to radically change the climate of a planet; a shift of even a few percent in the orbital radius would be enough to cause pretty severe ecologial changes.

Then in 2285, Reliant comes along. Now one obvious thing they should have noticed is that the system has one planet fewer than it used to. They don't comment on that in the movie, but I suppose we could assume that they did comment about it offscreen. "Hey, there were seven planets here according to the Enterprise logs but our sensors only show six. Wonder what happened to the outer one? What a mystery, huh? Oh well, let the planetary dynamics lab worry about it. On to Ceti Alpha VI for the mission!"

There's also the fact that they would arrive to find "Ceti Alpha VI" looked nothing like it was supposed to. But then, did they actually know what it was supposed to look like? We didn't see Spock or anybody scanning the system in Space Seed - Spock talked about the planet from memory. So perhaps whatever survey of the system he had memorised was rather cursory, with little more than a simple planet count and then a quick scan of Ceti Alpha V, enough to say that it could support life. We know the Enterprise would have stopped off at the planet to beam Khan and his group down, and we can presume he scanned the planet to pick a suitable location for Khan, but did he bother to look at the other planets in the system at all? We don't know.

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Of course, it's still rather amazing that the Reliant could have gotten the wrong planet. You pretty much have to believe that they went into a system to do a scientific survey looking for lifeless planets, without doing even as much as looking in the computer to see the most basic details of the system - how many planets, what were their orbits, etc.

Or, at the very least, you have to assume that the did do their research, had a conversation about it that we didn't see, and then decided "Okay, the seventh planet in this system is missing and the fifth and sixth planets are in a different orbit than they were the last time anybody looked. We are all confused by this, but after some discussion we have decided to just completely drop the subject and assume that these six planets are as they should be. Now let us never so much as mention it to one another again, even if we find more oddities such as people being on a planet where they really shouldn't be."

So yeah. Our conclusion here is not so much that Reliant's crew could not have seen this coming. Our conclusion is more along the lines that Reliant's crew demonstrated tremendous incompetence... but at least they can count to six.

Your taxpayer credits at work, Federation citizens.

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© Graham & Ian Kennedy Page views : 43,498 Last updated : 17 Jan 2021