Tuesday, August 10, 1999 Published at 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
The view from Vulcan
40 Eridani: In the Star Trek universe, the planet Vulcan orbits it
By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse
Data painstakingly obtained by ground-based telescopes and satellites have been harnessed on the Web to plot the stars in our local galactic neighbourhood in three dimensions.
If you want to plot a route between the stars or find out which may have planets, these are the tools you need.
I have a large and unwieldy book called the Gliese catalogue of local stars. I remember using it when, as an astronomer, I used to plan observations. Now that catalogue is online and its information can be used to recreate the positions and brightness of the stars closest to the Sun.
It is raw data for science fiction writers.
Imagine visiting the star called 40 Eridani in the constellation of Eridanus, the river. From Earth, this star is easily visible to the unaided eye on a moderately clear night.
The main star in the system is an orange dwarf. However your interest is not in it, but one of its planets because, in Star Trek at least, the planet Vulcan orbits 40 Eri.
Using the online data it is possible to recreate what it would be like to stand on Vulcan and look into the sky of Spock's homeworld.
The brilliant orange 40 Eri would not be alone in Vulcan's sky. Vulcan's main star has two stellar companions, a white and a red dwarf, that would be brilliant in Vulcan's sky as points silver white and brilliant blood red.
Never far away from each other in the sky they would be associated with myths and legends from before the time the Vulcan's abandoned emotion and embraced logic.
Other stars of science fiction are visible in the sky. The hapless crew of Lost in Space (the 1960's series) were headed for Alpha Centauri.
The Forbidden Planet, one of the best of the early science fiction films, circles Altair in Aquilla the Eagle and Dune is a brilliant star called Canopus.
The stars in the Gliese catalogue are a varied collection. Here are brilliant stellar lighthouses like Sirius, stars like our own modest Sun and many, many dim long-lived red dwarf stars.
If mankind does get out among the stars these maps will be our realm for perhaps millions of years to come.