Today’s post is largely brought to you by the fact that I have been sick the past four days and my fiance and I have been bingeing on Star Trek Voyager. At some point, we began wondering about the sequence from 0:30-0:49 in which Voyager flies through a nebula and leaves a wake of von Karman vortices. Would a starship really leave that kind of wake in a nebula?
My first question was whether the nebula could be treated as a continuous fluid instead of a collection of particles. This is part of the continuum assumption that allows physicists to treat fluid properties like density, temperature, and velocity as well-defined quantities at all points. The continuum assumption is acceptable in flows where the Knudsen number is small. The Knudsen number is the ratio of the mean free path length to a characteristic flow length, in this case, Voyager's size. The mean free path length is the average distance a particle travels before colliding with another particle. Nebulae are much less dense than our atmosphere, so the mean free path length is larger (~ 2 cm by my calculation) but still much smaller than Voyager's length of 344 m. So it is reasonable to treat the nebula as a fluid.
As long as the nebula is acting like a fluid, it’s not unreasonable to see alternating vortices shed from Voyager. But are the vortices we see realistic relative to Voyager's size and speed? Physicists use the dimensionless Strouhal number to describe oscillatory flows and vortex shedding. It’s a ratio of the vortex shedding frequency times the characteristic length to the flow’s velocity. We already know Voyager's size, so we just need an estimate of its velocity and the number of vortices shed per second. I visually estimated these as 500 m/s and 2.5 vortices/second, respectively. That gives a Strouhal number of 0.28, very close to the value of 0.2 typically measured in the wake of a cylinder, the classical case for a von Karman vortex street.
So far Voyager's wake is looking quite reasonable indeed. But what about its speed relative to the nebula's speed of sound? If Voyager is moving faster than the local speed of sound, we might still see vortex shedding in the wake, but there would also be a bow shock off the ship’s leading edge. To answer this question, we need to know Voyager's Mach number, its speed relative to the local speed of sound. After some digging through papers on nebulae, I found an equation to estimate speed of sound in a nebula (Eq 9 of Jin and Sui 2010) using the specific gas constant and temperature. Because nebulae are primarily composed of hydrogen, I approximated the nebula’s gas constant with hydrogen’s value and chose a representative temperature of 500 K (also based on Jin and Sui 2010). This gave a local speed of sound of 940 m/s, and set Voyager's Mach number at 0.53, inside the subsonic range and well away from any shock wave formation.
Of course, these are all rough estimates and back-of-the-envelope fluid dynamics calculations, but my end conclusion is that Voyager's vortex shedding wake through the nebula is realistic after all! (Video credit: Paramount; topic also requested by heuste11)