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Reality check for 'Trek'

One of the top scientists on the Cassini mission for Saturn is taking on a Hollywood film odyssey as well: The Space Science Institute's Carolyn Porco, who leads Cassini's imaging science team, says she'll be serving as a scientific consultant for "Star Trek XI," due for release this Christmas. "My hope is that we will see what's real and true on the big screen!" she told me in an e-mail.

Porco will be guiding the production team at Paramount Pictures as they create planetary scenes for the movie, a prequel to Classic Trek that reportedly involves the older Mr. Spock time-traveling to help out his younger self as well as a young James T. Kirk.

The film's producer and director, "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams, had high praise for Porco in today's release from Diamond Sky Productions:

"Carolyn and her team have produced images that are simply stunning," Abrams, who also directed the "Alias" TV series and the movie "Mission: Impossible III," was quoted as saying. "I'm thrilled that she will help guide our production in creating an authentic version of space, one that immerses our audience in a visual experience as awe-inspiring as what Carolyn's cameras have captured."

Porco was similarly thrilled: "This is a fabulous opportunity to bring to a wider audience the discoveries we've made at Saturn, and the spectacular sights we have seen there. And what better way to do that than to make use of those discoveries in the crafting of imagery for one of the most popular movie franchises of all time."

Porco has long been plugged into the pop-culture side of space pursuits: In addition to her scientific roles on the Voyager, Cassini and New Horizons missions, she has served as a consultant for the Jodie Foster film "Contact" and the "Cosmic Journey" TV special that marked Voyager's 25th anniversary.

In follow-up e-mails, Porco told me that she and the "Trek" team "haven't begun yet to work together in detail." But she's hoping that "you'll be seeing some of Saturn's spectacular scenery coming to a theater near you."

She also sent along a reminder that on March 12, Cassini is due to take on the first in a series of "scraping flybys" over Enceladus, an ice-spewing moon of Saturn. The orbiter's $3.4 billion primary mission is due to conclude in July, but plans are in the works for a two-year extension.

And then what? In this month's budget proposal, NASA set out its intention for another flagship outer-planet mission, focusing either on the moons of Jupiter (including ice-covered Europa) or the moons of Saturn (including smog-covered Titan).

If Porco had her druthers, she'd favor the Saturn option - and make sure that mysterious Enceladus is on the itinerary. Here's what she told me via e-mail:

"There is every reason to believe that we will see some component of a flagship to Titan that includes exploration of Enceladus. The question is: How deep and how comprehensive?   There may be woefully insufficient funds to put something down on the surface, like a lander or even a penetrator, and the most we'll be able to do the next time around is fly through the plume with instruments more sensitive than those on Cassini.

"So, this may be a battle, but I'm hopeful."

Whichever way NASA decides, it should be a classic episode in planetary science. Maybe even bigger than "Star Trek XI."