Far out in space, our hero's Cool Starship is on the run from the Big Bad and hides out in a nebula/gas field/whatever and is obscured from their pursuer's sensors. It's a misty realm where you may not even be able to see your own hand in front of your face. This trope is about what seems to be a common theme in nearly all Science Fiction shows: a (nearly) human-scale cloud that is inexplicably stable in space. To add to the drama, the cloud may also contain dangerous weather, with lightning bolts and the like.
In reality, nebulae and other "clouds" of interstellar matter are extremely sparse — they have only about one atom of matter per cubic centimeter of space. That's a trillion trillion times less dense than the matter you could expect to find on Earth or in a star. The only reason these nebulae appear cloudlike to us is their immense size and distance. A nebula can be many light years across, regardless of how compact it may look from Earth.
This trope has grown in popularity in direct proportion to the number and quality of images returned by the Hubble Space Telescope (and other observatories). It's quickly becoming a case of Reality Is Unrealistic. See Analysis for a comparison with real-life nebulae.
Compare Asteroid Thicket. Trope name is a meta-example of Space "X". An example of both Space Is Air (it's acting that way), and Space Is an Ocean (maritime tropes of drifting into dense fog being directly transposed onto spacefaring).
- WALLE Has the ship Axiom parked next to a nebula which initially hides its presence as the Earth-ship approaches.
- Serenity: The Ion Cloud around Mr. Universe's planet. Humorously, in the commentary, Joss Whedon reveals that he's well-aware of how unrealistic it is:
Joss Whedon: I have no idea what an "ion cloud" is or why it would act like this, but we needed for that shot, so we have it.
- The Mutara Nebula in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of the best-known and most imitated examples. It has the effect of negating shields and limiting the ships inside to mostly visual reconnaissance, eliminating almost all of the advantages Khan had gained through his surprise attack on Enterprise early in the film.
- The 2011 film Thor features a dazzling journey through the cosmos via the rainbow bridge through a nebula which looks suspiciously like the Pillars of Creation, complete with the false coloration featured in the famous Hubble photo.
- Galaxy Quest has the Protector escape an enemy attack by flying into what looks like a nebula. It's actually a cloud of Space Mines.
- In Solo Kessel is shown to be at the center of one, so thick that there's only one safe path in or out that is just barely wide enough for an Imperial Star Destroyer. Going off the path risks running into space icebergs, space monsters, black holes, or space rain (the Galaxy Far Far Away is 'jello' on the sci fi hardness scale).
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
- In the first book, Zaphod claims that the inside of a nebula is the only place you'd see a completely blank viewport. Mind you, this is Zaphod talking, but the screen actually is blank until they adjust the view. Such perfect cover is very, very improbable: any random point selected within any random nebula is liable to have stars, if rather occluded stars, visible in some directions. The notion that the nebula has been providing this perfect cover to the stars Solianis and Rahm for five million years is even more improbable.
- In Life, the Universe and Everything, the Krikkit people have never seen stars and are entirely unaware of the night sky specifically because their planet lives inside a cloud of Hactar's debris. In this case, Trillian notes the incredible improbability of the entire situation and deduces that an outside intelligence is behind the whole thing.
- Mostly justified with the "Provcon-Fist", a proper dark nebula in the Perry Rhodan universe that the ex-Terran resistance movement of the 36th century uses to hide from the forces occupying the galaxy after Earth has already vacated its solar system for parts unknown to those left behind. It's a reasonably proper mostly-globular nebula actually large enough to hold several stars and their associated planets of its own, and what makes it basically impossible to navigate aren't so much its properties in normal spacetime as the fact that it presents an always ongoing "storm front" in hyperspace, through which any ships must necessarily travel and where with about two plot-relevant exceptions only "native" guides with the right Psychic Powers can find their way safely.
- Justified in the Murray Leinster story First Contact. The expedition to the Crab Nebula has to drop out of faster-than-light travel when they get the nebula itself. Leinster was aware that nebulae are extremely tenuous, but "A ship travelling at multiples of the speed of light does not want to run into even a merely hard vacuum; it needs true emptiness such as exists between the stars."
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- "The Best of Both Worlds" has the Enterprise take refuge in a dense nebula to hide from the Borg. The Borg can't find them, so they resort to launching charges into the nebula to drive Enterprise out.
- In "Chain of Command", the Cardassians hide their ships in a corrosive nebula in preparation for a surprise attack. Enterprise gets wind of this and attaches mines to their hulls, which thanks to the corrosion will not withstand the blast. They're quick to acquiesce once it's made clear their ships can be destroyed with the press of a button.
- Star Trek: Voyager:
- In the episode "Year of Hell", a crippled Voyager hides inside of a nebula so dense that it produces a visible fog inside the ship's corridors, on account of the ship being too damaged to otherwise keep the stuff out. (This implies that the nebula is denser than the atmosphere inside the ship.) Captain Janeway even orders the hull breaches sealed to avoid having an "indoor nebula."
- In the opening credits, Voyager passes though a cloud just a few kilometers thick, yet dense enough to see.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Rocks and Shoals", Sisko's ship (which is being chased and has no warp drive) is not only able to find a dense and conveniently close nebula to hide in, but finds a Conveniently Close Planet inside the nebula.
- Babylon 5 mostly contented itself with pretty false-color nebulas as distant space backgrounds, but they succumbed fully to the trope in the climactic "Into the Fire" episode with a space battle zipping around the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, one of Hubble's most famous photos.
- Battlestar Galactica (2003) makes the mistake of showing nebulae as visible from close-up, especially with Lee flying through low-visibility conditions in the Ionian nebula. The cloud around New Caprica, which was likely held there because of the planet's gravity well, is more justified though.
- Blake's 7. In "Hostage", the Liberator is attacked by a well-coordinated Federation taskforce, so they hide in a cloud of ionized particles. Just when they're congratulating themselves on evading their pursuers, they get hit by the real ambush and have to resort to a Hyperspeed Escape at Ludicrous Speed, despite the risk that even a tiny particle penetrating their Deflector Shields could obliterate them.
- In BIONICLE, when the planet Spherus Magna shattered, the smaller planets left behind formed a gigantic Bionicle emblem in space: three planets represented the three large dots, while the "swooshes" around them were formed by, as the writer once claimed, frozen clouds of Energized Protodermis dust, which kept its shape even after 100,000 years.
- Battlefleet Gothic: Armada: Gas clouds appear as battlefield terrain, and are both small enough to fit more than comfortably inside orbital battlefields and thick enough for spaceships hiding in them to be completely obscured from sight.
- In Escape Velocity, systems in the Serpens Nebula can have varying degrees of sensor-jamming interference that continually obscures the view screen. The sequels both have other nebulae, generally with a sensor-jamming interference. It should be noted that interference is the right word — it is represented as static of varying intensity covering the screen. Actual murk is a separate and somewhat rarer feature (although it does tend to show up in deep nebulae).
- FreeSpace has nebulae that look like really thick technicolor soup when you fly through them, obscuring things from your radar except at close range, and limiting sight range to under a kilometer. They also have frequent lightning storms which, when intense enough, wreak EMP-related havoc with your ship's HUD.
- Freelancer has numerous nebulas that the player can travel through. One system even has a light blue nebula enveloping the entire system, looking like a bright, sunny day on Earth. The game also had a number of other issues.
- Each region of Sirius, except for Liberty, is located near a specific type of nebula. Bretonia has the Barrier, a huge bluish-white cloud of ice crystals. Kusari has the Crow Nebula, the aforementioned blue nebula composed of ionized hydrogen, oxygen and helium. Rheinland has the Walker Nebula, which is made up of yellow clouds with mineral rich asteroid fields. The Edge World systems have the Edge Nebula, a mysterious green cloud full of alien organisms, artifacts and Nomads. And they're all drop dead gorgeous.
- In FTL: Faster Than Light, purple nebula clouds a la Wrath of Khan cover certain jump points. They disable sensors, and certain ones have plasma storms that halve reactor output for those within. Slugs make their home in nebula sectors.
- Galactic Civilizations III introduces space weather as obstacles on the map. Nebulae, dust clouds, gas clouds, and "radiation storms" all litter the map. They tend to limit sensor and movement range to varying extents, and radiation storms actually damage any ships that fly through them.
- The various Homeworld games have mission areas which take place inside nebulae, and they are often used story-wise as cover against detection. Areas inside nebulae often contain wisp-like strands of stellar gas that function as harvestable resources.
- Yuri from Infinite Space at one point uses a dense gas cloud around a neutron star to hide his ship. Various nebulae can be seen as "Celestial Phenomena" as you explore the galaxies.
- Played with in Mass Effect; most nebulae are just there as pretty colours on the sector scale of the Galactic Map, and disappear once you zoom in to the star-system level. Some exceptions exist, though:
- The Serpent Nebula around the Citadel is a regular pea-souper which obscures the massive station for a dramatic reveal as you fly in — and is therefore noted as being blatantly artificial, and the subject of much speculation as to why someone would go to so much effort to keep it that way. It's there to cut the Citadel off once the Reapers succeed in shutting down the Mass Relay network.
- Also notable is the completely opaque Perseus Veil surrounding geth space.
- In Master of Orion 2, nebulae greatly reduce the cruising speed of ships passing through them unless the fleet is accompanied by a leader with the "Navigator" trait. They also disable shields that haven't been properly upgraded, when battling around planets in star systems located inside a nebula.
- Otherspace uses a gigantic red and gold nebula called the Rigor Strand as a sort of close-by frontier area where rogues and adventurers hang out, due to the fact that the nebula's sensor-thwarting abilities make it nearly impossible to map out.
- Star Wars games:
- In Empire at War, nebula fields are large clouds only a few ship-lengths wide, which disable special abilities when one sends a ship into them. Ion storms (which look almost the same, except with Space Lightning) do exactly the same thing, in addition to disabling a ships' Deflector Shields.
- Rogue Squadron II has a stage where you have to fight off fighters in a nebula.
- Stellaris has nebulae as a type of star system "terrain," like pulsars or black holes, and the galactic map has several named nebulae that encompass several systems. The upside is that you can harvest resources from a nebula with the proper space station module, the downside is that outside sensors cannot penetrate the nebular cloud, so the only way to see what's in one is by sending in one or more ships. This makes a nebula a natural place to spring an ambush on a fleet moving along the galaxy's Hyperspace Lanes.
- Matter Splatter Galaxy from Super Mario Galaxy, which appears to be a cluster of ruins floating about in a thick green space cloud.
- Tachyon: The Fringe has the Twilight Region, which is a giant nebula that obscures most sensors. In fact, you need special sensors and radiation screens just to survive there. The "fog" is even seeping inside the Deep Fringe Array station. It also drives people insane after prolonged exposure, although the radiation may have something to do with it.
- In Ten Minute Space Strategy, gas clouds can appear randomly on the map and disappear after several turns, though rather than being used as a cover, they can be occupied by your fighters to boost your empire's population growth (they must be packed full of chemicals needed to sustain life, huh?).
- Treasure Planet: Battle at Procyon: Nebulae appear as large blue clouds, and entering one will cause the ship to lose power. Ironclads are immune to this, as they do not use solar sails for power, and can thus travel through nebulae without losing power.
- Wing Commander III featured one mission inside a nebula that obscured vision, but otherwise didn't really have any effect on the mission.
- Nebulae show up in the X-Universe games. They're all extremely dense (with a few exceptions), sometimes limiting visibility down to 10 kilometers. In the Albion Prelude expansion pack for Terran Conflict, the nebulae's visibility obstructing effect is removed, making them atmospheric effects that don't affect visibility. The Xtended Terran Conflict mod likewise mostly removes obstructive nebulae, but one sector, Tortuga, has such thick yellow clouds that it's often impossible to see the entirety of a capital ship — visibility it something like 1.5 kilometers (in a game where most capital ships are 2 or more kilometers long). Better keep a close eye on your gravidar.
- In The Lydian Option, the Eye is an asteroid prison visible as an eye in the middle of a nebula shaped like a creature.
- A very common goof related to this trope is in artistic illustrations of spaceships, satellites, etc. to put as background a bright (see the analysis subpage), even false color,note image of a nebula. Subverted somewhat, however, in those pictures by NASA and the like to illustrate a mission that will study the Universe in whatever wavelength(s), where the background is a picture of a nebula seen in the band(s) observed by that said mission.