One of Star Trek Voyager’s best loved quotes was said in season 1, episode 6 (“The Cloud”). 75 years from home, the ship had run out of coffee and Neelix’ substitute just doesn’t cut it. The use of the replicators was confined as energy had to be saved. Then the crew approaches a strange nebula and while being far away from home, they’re still in space to explore. Captain Katherine Janeway orders to set course, for “There is coffee in that nebula.” This has been printed on countless mugs all over the world ever since. But what exactly is a nebula? And can we really find coffee there?
What’s a nebula then?
A nebula is a cloud of either gas, dust, or a combination of the two. They’re being held together and compacted by gravity. They’re the space’s nurseries as stars are born there and are typically found in interstellar space. The gorgeous pictures you see with nearly ever space article are often nebulae. The colours are created by the different elements within. Most Nebulae contain about 90% of hydrogen. This makes sense as stars are mostly composed of hydrogen. It’s also the most common chemical element in the universe.
What else is in a nebula? Mostly helium and 0,1% of heavy elements such as carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium. All these elements undergo an interstellar gravitational collapse. This causes the matter to clump together and form these amazing structures, which are typically huge in size and are very dense. You can fly through a nebula though in theory. I say in theory because one of the closest and best known nebula, the Orion Nebula, is about 20 light years away. So, if you’d be able to fly at the speed of light, which we can not and most likely never will, it will still take 20 years to get there.
Through the pretty colours
Will flying through a nebula be a cosmic out of your mind experience? If you mean you will be mesmerized by all the pretty colours we can see from afar, you may be very underwhelmed. The closer you get to the nebula, the fainter the colours will appear. Open a picture of a nebula (or a cat, or something else) on your computer and zoom in. The more you zoom in, the more the picture becomes unclear. Pixels are causing this. Think of these pixels as chemical elements. Seen from far away, it’s clear and beautiful as the pixels are all close together. But get closer, or zoom in, they move from each other (pixels appear bigger) and it loses its focus.
OK, that’s in short what a nebula is. The birthplace of stars which are pretty and you can fly into in. But is there coffee in that nebula? What Captain Janeway really was looking for, was energy for the replicator food dispensers. A replicator, if you aren’t into the Star Trek universe (you’re missing out by the way), is a device which is able to replicate any food you would want, if programmed correctly into the system. Wishing for Earl Grey will give you a plant. Therefore wish for a Tea, Earl Grey, Hot, if you want to enjoy a tea like a real star ship captain.
After a few weeks in the Delta Quadrant, energy levels are getting low and to save energy, Neelix, a Delta Quadrant alien, has been appointed as a chef on board and cooks with supplies found on the various planets they encounter. For the sake of suspense, the replicators require a certain kind of energy. When the crew detect this nebula with signs of omicron particles (we have yet to find it, but in the future they have), which they need for them, they set course. This being Star Trek, and Voyager being an exploration star ship, things of course don’t go as planned and the nebula isn’t a nebula but a life form. So in the end, captain Janeway doesn’t get her coffee, which is also bad news for the crew in my personal opinion.
In conclusion, can you find coffee in a nebula? Only if you’re able to have a device that is able to convert the elements of that nebula into coffee. And if you don’t mistake a life form for a nebula. So, for the time being, we better keep to our earthly coffee beans and treat the ground and the people working there very well.