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'Star Trek' reaches warp speed at real fusion lab

Paramount Pictures

This scene from "Star Trek Into Darkness" was shot at California's National Ignition Facility, which is pursuing nuclear fusion in a lab.

By Clara Moskowitz
LiveScience

If the Starship Enterprise's warp drive looks especially realistic in the new "Star Trek" film, that's because it was shot in a real-life laboratory for nuclear fusion research: The National Ignition Facility in California.

The J.J. Abrams-led crew of the new film "Star Trek Into Darkness," got special permission from the U.S. Department of Energy to film scenes from the movie at the facility, which is part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.

There, real-life scientists are using the world's most energetic laser system to attempt to create nuclear fusion — the merging of two atoms into one — in a laboratory. If successful, the technology could provide a truly clean, renewable energy source for the future. While the National Ignition Facility (NIF) hasn't succeeded in igniting fusion just yet, scientists say they're getting closer and closer to their goal. [Photos: The Evolution of the Starship Enterprise]

There are genuine links between the research going on at NIF and the futuristic science portrayed in "Star Trek," the film's producers point out: After all, the Enterprise is fueled with deuterium, the heavy variant of hydrogen, which the NIF uses in its fusion experiments.

"For many years, we've been waiting for 'Star Trek' to realize they should be here!" principal associate director of NIF Edward Moses said in a statement. "This is a very futuristic facility… and I think we've all been influenced by Star Trek's vision of the future."

The film uses NIF to portray the innards of the 23rd-century starship, which uses a warp drive to bend space-time, allowing the Enterprise to travel faster than the speed of light.

Moses said he and his science team were thrilled to see their lab transformed into a sci-fi vision. "It was super exciting to see J.J. Abrams' vision of what we do," Moses said.

For their part, the film crew was just as excited to see real-life science in action.

"We were there just trying to shoot a movie, but all around us, these innovative scientists are working on technologies that will likely help the whole world," Abrams said. "The idea that one day the research at NIF could create clean, limitless energy is so exciting. On the one hand, it was simply a great location for the story. But more importantly, we were really honored to be welcomed there. These people are doing research that could alter the destiny of the planet the way the wheel or the light bulb did."

The collaboration is especially fitting, because so many scientists have been inspired to pursue their careers, in part, by science fiction such as "Star Trek."

"We couldn't even believe they let us in to shoot — and then, they were so excited about having us," Abrams said. "So many people told us 'Star Trek' inspired them to get involved in science."

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