Sonobuoy Ahoy!

A little over a week ago, I received an item I purchased via eBay. It was the shipping container used for the United States Navy’s AN/SSQ-47B sonobuoys. Why you may ask? Because it is actually one of the most widely re-purposed real-world object used as a prop and set decoration within the Star Trek universe.


As any Tom Clancy fan might already know, a sonobuoy (a portmanteau of sonar and buoy) is a relatively small buoy (typically 13 cm or 5 in, in diameter and 91 cm or 3 ft long) expendable sonar system that is dropped/ejected from aircraft or ships conducting anti-submarine warfare or underwater acoustic research. They are an expendable system with the radio transmitter remaining afloat while the casing of the buoy which contains a hydrophone (a microphone designed to work underwater) sinks to a preselected depth. There are active sonobuoys that record the reflection of a ping, and passive devices that just listen.

CNU-239/E container used for AN/SSQ-47B sonobuoys, the launcher casing and sonobuoy.

CNU-239/E shipping container, launcher casing and AN/SSQ-47B sonobuoy.

The container we can see in Star Trek is the transport CNU-239/E container used for AN/SSQ-47B sonobuoys (not the casing of the buoy itself) and is listed in the NATO logistics catalogs as NSN 8140-01-217-8718.

CNU-239/E shipping container and SSQ-47B sonobuoy.

CNU-239/E shipping container and SSQ-47B sonobuoy.

CNU-239/E shipping container.

CNU-239/E shipping container.

The hard plastic cylinder has a octagonal cross-section which facilitates an easy and stable stacking of multiple containers. They could be seem in many episodes of Star Trek, most notably as Starfleet sample containers and transporter test cylinders. It can also be seen in other science fiction television series, such as Buck Rogers or the original Battlestar Galactica.

Overall, these containers appeared in at least 40 Star Trek episodes or movies, making it one of the most re-used props/set decoration in franchise.

Go Navy!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The Ex Astris Scientia website documented the re-uses of sonobuoy containers began with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (TMP), making multiple appearances in it and the subsequent films.

In TMP, they show up a couple of times as cylinders without a specific purpose in a gray, white and chrome finish variations. The first occurrence is the first scene on the bridge as the Enterprise is in dry dock. As the camera pans around the flurry of activity as technicians and crew scramble to prepare the ship to launch, a crew member is seen handing a grey one up to an unseen technician up in the ceiling of the bridge:

Sonobuoy case used as a prop in

Sonobuoy case used as bridge equipment prop in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”.

The next appearance, is where the sonobuoy case shape is part of the transporter machinery in the exposed floor panels:

Sonobuoy case used as transporter room set detailing in

Sonobuoy case used as transporter room machinery set detailing.

The next appearance in TMP has one, painted in high-gloss “chrome” silver, serves as an apparatus in sickbay. In addition there are  four round structures in the wall behind Decker in the same scene are also made from sonobuoy containers, with just the end caps being used:

Sonobuoy cases used as sickbay medical equipment prop and set detailing in

Sonobuoy cases used as sickbay medical equipment prop and set detailing.

Also in this scene, a free-standing white sonobuoy container is seen through the glass doors in Dr. McCoy’s office:

Sonobuoy cases used as sickbay container prop in

White sonobuoy case used as a container or equipment prop in sickbay.

Finally also can see it as part of a complex machinery panel relief, most likely in the same transporter room floor panel which seems to be re-used when it appears in the irregularly structured panels in vertical columns surrounding the pit area where “V’ger” resides:

These same panels, most likely as a vac-u-formed set of wall “greebles“, would go on to reappear in the next three movies and on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG) as well as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), “Star Trek: Voyager (VOY) and “Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT).

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

In the next film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan“, the prop appear in many different places. We first see them embedded in the aforementioned wall panel segment, both in the bridge simulator room area at Starfleet Training Command:

…and later on the Regula One research station. First in the background of one of the hallways Kirk walks through:

Sonobuoy cases used as wall panel detailing for the Regula One set in

Sonobuoy cases used as wall panel detailing for the Regula One set in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”.

Then in the station’s transporter room walls and floor:

Then we see them used as individual containers again, this time painted silver when the away team transporters into the Regula planetoid’s Genesis Project Stage Two test site:

Finally, we can recognize them as the support columns in a vertical ladderway on the Enterprise. They can be seen as Spock climbs down to repair the warp drive at the end of the Battle in the Mutara Nebula:

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

In the next original cast film, “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” we first see it again as part of a machinery wall panel in main engineering on the Enterprise. Only this time it appears the octagonal section has had half its front facets cut away, and a panel of blinking lights are installed into it which a cadet engineer is working on as Scotty talks to Admiral Kirk over the intercom:

Sonobuoy case use as wall machinery in engineering on the Enterprise in

Sonobuoy wall machinery in main engineering in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”.

Later in the film it turns up again as both wall and floor panel greebles in Spacedock‘s transporter room where Kirk, McCoy, Sulu, Chekov meet up with Lt. Uhura to clandestinely make their way onto, and then steal, the Enterprise to go to the Genesis planet to retrieve Spock’s body:

The same wall greeble panels are then used as some hydraulic or pneumatic component on the side of the commandeered Klingon bird-of-prey‘s aft loading ramp. It can be seen as the crew disembarks on the planet Vulcan with Spock’s body:

Sonobuoy case use in wall machinery panels in Klingon bird-of-prey landing ramp in

Sonobuoy case used in Klingon bird-of-prey landing ramp wall machinery panels.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

In “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home“, the prop is again part of some wall machinery panels. First it seen in the passageway leading onto the the bridge of the now re-christened Klingon bird-of-prey, the “HMS Bounty“:

Sonobuoy case used in wall machinery panels in Klingon bird-of-prey hallway in

Sonobuoy case used in wall machinery panels in Klingon bird-of-prey hallway in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”.

And again on the bridge itself where two of the cases and the top from a case can be seen up towards the celling behind the communications station behind Uhura:

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Like the Enterprise hallways which were re-used pieces from TMP and subsequent TOS -cast films, the sonobuoy container made the leap from the big-screen to small. The first time the containers appear in “Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is in the two-part pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint“.

We can see a pair of containers painted white through an open door when Data gives Admiral McCoy a tour of the Enterprise-D. These same white versions can also be glimpsed in sickbay as Dr. Crusher prepares to lead a medical team down to the surface of Deneb IV to render aid to Bandi who were attacked by the alien life form in orbit above the planet:

The containers are next seen in the episode “Hide and Q” where they are again part of the same wall element that appeared in the first four TOS movies. They are seen when an away team beams down to Federation colony on Sigma III after they transmit an urgent call for medical help:

The next episode that show this wall is “Too Short a Season” when it is used in the one of the sets as the tunnels under the city on Mordan IV when a phaser battle with governor Karnas‘s troops:

Arguably one of the most notable appearances of the container in TNG, is in the twenty-second episode of the first season: “Symbiosis“. In the episode the containers are used to store the drug felicium, which is a central plot point in the episode.

They are painted a copper metallic color and have a modified black plastic liner and what appears to be a computer disk drive motor for an interior chamber lid. There is also a hole in the liner casing to house a metal pen-style component grabber which is used to pick out the drug capsules:

In second season episode “A Matter of Honor“, the container is once again used as part of a machinery wall panel on the Klingon bird-of-prey IKS Pagh. It can be seen briefly through a doorway in the bridge as Captain Kargan is returned to the Pagh after he was beamed onto the Enterprise, making Commander Riker the Captain of the Klingon ship, thereby avoiding an armed confrontation:

Sonobuoy wall detailing in the TNG episode

Sonobuoy wall detailing in the TNG episode “A Matter of Honor”.

Beginning in the third-season’s episode “The Ensigns of Command“, it started being used as transporter test cylinder. In the episode, Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge and Chief O’Brien have silver/gray test cylinder they use to try and get transporter function properly and compensate for the atmosphere of Tau Cygna V which cloaked in hyperonic radiation that prevents them using the transporters. Several of the cylinders are melted and damaged in their tests. In addition, a shortened white version of the container, used as some sort of equipment or a different type of container is present near the transporter pad as they are conducting their tests:

Once again the sonobuoy case is used as part of a wall panel in “The High Ground“. This time in the Ansata rebels’ camp on planet Rutia IV:

After that, the containers are next seen once again as transporter test cylinders in “Hollow Pursuits” both in an undamaged and in transporter-damaged state:

And again they are used as transporter test cylinders in the forth season episode “Data’s Day” when La Forge and O’Brian are trying to recreate the malfunction that caused the apparent death of the Vulcan Ambassador T’Pel. as she was transporting aboard the Romulan D’deridex-class warbird, the Devoras:

Sonobuoy case used as a transporter test cylinder prop in

Sonobuoy case used as a transporter test cylinder prop in “Data’s Day”.

We can see them as generic Starfleet sample or equipment containers in couple of fifth season episodes. In “Hero Worship“, the container appears in a section of the heavily damaged research vessel SS Vico when an away team of La Forge, Lt. Commander Data and Commander Riker beam aboard:

A silver one is included a collection of equipment in the episode the “The Masterpiece Society” when an engineering crew beams down to (and back up from) Moab IV in an effort to re-enforce the genetically-engineered colony’s bio-domes that are threatened by massive tectonic quakes due to an approaching stellar fragment:

In sixth season, they take on a much more lethal role in the second episode of a two-part story, “Chain of Command II“. Here they are shown as antimatter mines. This time they are painted silver with red end striping and various instruction/safety markings on them:

Their final appearance in the TNG television series is in the episode “Liaisons” where it is again part of the wall panel machinery. This time used on the inside of the wreck of a Terellian cargo freighter:

However they would be used one more time in a TNG story. They appear in the TNG cast’s first feature film “Star Trek: Generations” where they appear as Mark IV, Mark V, Mark VI, and Mark 11B class probes in the Amargosa observatory‘s launcher bay:

As previously mentioned, the case went on to be used in multiple episodes of DS9, Voyager and Enterprise, mainly as a container or piece of equipment.

As with the conical-container that was a re-purposed Little Tykes Apollo Space Capsule Toy Chest, I intend to make an accurate 3D model for use in both 3D applications as well as publishing them for other Star Trek modelers to use.

Having the physical object to pull accurate real-world dimensions off of, will allow me to reverse engineer many of the Enterprise sets and props. This should afford me the ability to create some accurate drawings for several areas in the Enterprise itself, as well as some fo the standalone props and cargo containers. Some of which I intend to produce in the 3D printer I purchased a few weeks ago in 1:350 scale for placement in the hanger/cargo hold area of the Enterprise.

Beyond that however, I will be painting it and using it, most likely in the silver and markings of the Regula One Gensis Test Site containers, and using it as a waterproof storage tube for the original TMP production blueprints I own and rolled artwork I don’t get framed and hung on the home-office walls.

3 thoughts on “Sonobuoy Ahoy!

  1. I am glad I wasn’t the only one to see that. I even caught another use on the Ghostbusters 2 car on the roof rack array. Last week they added a Hollywood Star to the walk of fame for an inanimate object for the first time ever, the award given to the Chevrolet Suburban for its many years of screen time. I would like to nominate these tubes for a star on the walk of fame as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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