Warp drive (Star Trek)

Warp drive (Star Trek)
A visualization of a warp field. The ship rests in a bubble of normal space.

Warp drive is a faster-than-light (FTL) propulsion system in the setting of many science fiction works, most notably Star Trek. A spacecraft equipped with a warp drive may travel at velocities greater than that of light by many orders of magnitude, while circumventing the relativistic problem of time dilation. Some of the other fictions in which warp drive technology is featured include: Stars!, Freelancer, EVE Online, Earth and Beyond, StarCraft, DarkSpace, Starship Troopers, Astro Empires, Doctor Who and Star Ocean. In contrast to many other fictional FTL technologies, such as a "jump drive" or the Infinite Improbability Drive, the warp drive does not permit instantaneous travel between two points; instead, warp drive technology creates an artificial "bubble" of normal space-time that surrounds the spacecraft (as opposed to entering a separate realm or dimension like hyperspace, such as the "warp drive" which is used in the Warhammer 40,000 universe). Consequently, spacecraft at warp velocity can continue to interact with objects in normal space.


The Original Series: establishing a background

Warp drive is one of the fundamental features of the Star Trek storyline; in the first pilot episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, "The Cage", it is referred to as a "hyperdrive"/"time warp" drive combination, and it is stated that the "time barrier" has been broken, allowing a group of stranded interstellar travelers to return to Earth far sooner than would have otherwise been possible. (Possibly refers to Time Dilation}

The episode "Metamorphosis", also from the original series, establishes a backstory for the invention of warp drive, stating that it was invented by Zefram Cochrane. Cochrane is repeatedly referred to afterwards, but the exact details of the first warp trials were not shown until the second Star Trek: The Next Generation movie, Star Trek: First Contact. The movie depicts Cochrane as having invented warp drive on Earth in 2063 (two years after the date speculated by the first edition of the Star Trek Chronology). By using a matter/antimatter reactor to create plasma, and by sending this plasma through warp coils, he created a warp bubble which he could use to move a craft into subspace and hence exceed the speed of light. This successful first trial led directly to first contact with the Vulcans.

The later prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise describes the warp engine technology as a 'Gravimetric Field Displacement Manifold' (Commander Tucker's tour, "Cold Front"), and describes the device as being powered by an anti-matter/matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles (one on each side of the ship) to create a displacement field (the aforementioned "bubble") The episode also firmly establishes that many other civilizations had warp drive before humans; First Contact co-writer Ronald D. Moore suggested that Cochrane's drive was in some way superior to forms that existed beforehand, and was gradually adopted by the galaxy at large.[1] Throughout the series, the viewer is made aware that the Vulcans have more advanced warp drive technology than humans even in the 22nd century. Enterprise, set in 2151 onwards, follows the voyages of the first human ship capable of traveling at warp factor 5.2 which under the old warp table formula, is about 140 times the speed of light. In the episode "Broken Bow", Capt. Archer equates warp 4.5 as "...Neptune and back [from Earth] in six minutes."

The Next Generation onwards

Plots involving the Enterprise traveling beyond warp 10 were once in the original series (such as warp 14.1 in That Which Survives), but for The Next Generation it was decided that these would no longer be featured. A new warp scale was drawn up, with warp factor 10 set as an unattainable maximum. This is described in some technical manuals as Eugene's Limit, in homage to creator/producer Gene Roddenberry. Normal maximum warp in the original series was warp 8. The warp factors above warp 10 in TOS, such as the one above, were slower than warp 10 on the new scale, which reaches an asymptote at warp 10, representing infinite speed in accordance with the limit imposed by the producers. Star Trek: Voyager episode "Threshold" concurred with this: the characters ruled that reaching the speed of warp 10 was impossible. In spite of this, they went on to achieve the speed, experiencing a peculiar side effect: they underwent a [reversible] process of hyper-evolution culminating in their transformation into anthropomorphic newts. In this episode, Tom Paris explains that, while traveling at warp 10, he was simultaneously present in every part of the universe. At this speed, the shuttlecraft Cochrane's sensors are able to collect such enormous amounts of telemetry that the shuttle's storage capacity is completely filled.

The limit of 10 did not entirely stop warp inflation. By the mid-24th century, the Enterprise-D could travel at warp 9.8 at "extreme risk", while normal maximum operating speed was warp 9.6 and maximum rated cruise was warp 9.2. The Intrepid-class starship Voyager has a maximum sustainable cruising speed of warp 9.975, the Enterprise-E can go even faster at Warp 9.985. In the alternative future depicted in "All Good Things..." (the final episode of the Star Trek:TNG), Federation starships travel at warp 13.

Warp velocities

Warp drive velocity in Star Trek is generally expressed in "warp factor" units, which—according to the Star Trek Technical Manuals—correspond to the magnitude of the warp field. Achieving warp factor 1 is equivalent to breaking the light barrier, while the actual velocity corresponding to higher factors is determined using an ambiguous formula. Several episodes of the original series placed the Enterprise in peril by having it travel at high warp factors; at one point in "That Which Survives" the Enterprise traveled at a warp factor of 14.1. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Most Toys" the crew of Enterprise-D discovers that the android Data may have been stolen while on board another ship, Jovis. At this point the Jovis, which has a maximum warp factor of 3 has had a 23 hour head start which the Enterprise-D figures puts her anywhere within .102 light year radius of her last known position. However, the velocity [in present dimensional units] of any given warp factor is rarely the subject of explicit expression, and travel times for specific interstellar distances are not consistent through the various series.

According to the Star Trek episode writer's guide for The Original Series, warp factors are converted to multiples of c with the cubic function v = w3c, where w is the warp factor, v is the velocity, and c is the speed of light. Accordingly, "warp 1" is equivalent to the speed of light, "warp 2" is 8 times the speed of light, "warp 3" is 27 times the speed of light, etc.

Michael Okuda's new warp scale.

For Star Trek: The Next Generation and the subsequent series, Star Trek artist Michael Okuda devised a formula based on the original one but with important differences. For warp factors 1 through 9, v = w10 / 3c. In the half-open interval from warp 9 to warp 10, the exponent of w increases toward infinity. Thus, in the Okuda scale, warp velocities approach warp 10 asymptotically. There is no exact formula for this interval because the quoted velocities are based on a hand-drawn curve; what can be said is that at velocities greater than warp 9, the form of the warp function changes because of an increase in the exponent of the warp factor w. Due to the resultant increase in the derivative, even minor changes in the warp factor eventually correspond to a greater than exponential change in velocity. In the episode "Threshold", Tom Paris breaks the warp 10 threshold.

Exact velocities were only given in the Voyager episode "The 37's" where Tom Paris describes Voyager's velocity at warp factor 9.9 (under the new warp table formula) as being about 4 billion miles per second, which would be over 21,000 times the speed of light (although Voyager cannot maintain this velocity for very long).


The term transwarp has been used a number of times, referring to an advanced form of warp drive used by the Borg. However, the term also refers to a Starfleet development project in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Episodes of The Next Generation and Voyager seem to indicate that transwarp technology involves a wormhole conduit directly through subspace as opposed to warping normal space via a manipulation of subspace. However, in the Voyager episode "Distant Origin", a species known as the Voth used a transwarp technology that did not appear to be similar to Borg transwarp, but rather an enhanced warp technology. It would seem more appropriate, therefore, for the term "transwarp" to refer to any propulsion system that can be considered superior in potential velocity to standard warp drive, without implying any specific technique correlating to this superior velocity. Transwarp was additionally mentioned in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Threshold" in regards to breaking the warp 10 barrier, the shuttle's engines were "Transwarp" engines.

Federation experiments

The USS Excelsior (NX-2000), under command of Captain Styles, was a Federation test-ship for prototype transwarp technology. It is described in Star Trek III as allowing a ship to instantaneously travel at any warp velocity, rather than having to progressively increase velocity to the desired magnitude. Excelsior's first attempt to enter transwarp failed due to sabotage by Chief Engineer Scott of the Enterprise, which prevented the Excelsior from pursuing them.

The bridge readouts of Enterprise-A at the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (illustrated in the spin-off reference work, Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise published in 1987) suggest that the project ultimately succeeded and the USS Enterprise was indeed fitted with transwarp. Susan Sackett's memoirs attribute the lack of transwarp in Star Trek: The Next Generation to Gene Roddenberry's dislike of the concept.[2]

Borg conduits

It is revealed in the episodes "Descent" and "Endgame" that the Borg have discovered the existence of transwarp conduits — regions in subspace that facilitate travel at velocities up to 20 times those of conventional warp drives.[citation needed] These episodes established that the Borg set up networks of these conduits between important areas in the galaxy. Borg transwarp conduits are activated by an encoded tachyon pulse. When a Borg vessel enters a transwarp conduit, it is subject to extreme gravimetric shear; to compensate, the Borg project a structural integrity field ahead of the vessel. Artificial conduits are linked together with transwarp hubs, of which six were known to exist; in "Endgame" one of these hubs, along with the Unicomplex, is destroyed by Voyager - which then proceeds to use one of the transwarp conduits to triumphantly return to Federation space.

Quantum slipstream

Quantum slipstream drive is presumably the standard means of interstellar travel used by Species 116 (of which Arturis was a member) prior to their assimilation by the Borg. In the Voyager episode "Hope and Fear", Seven of Nine remarks that the technology involved is not dissimilar to Borg transwarp technology — her point being that both drives involve the traveling vessel becoming immersed in an alternative plane of space-time rather than warping normal space-time. In the episode "Timeless", the shuttlecraft Delta Flyer successfully uses the technology to return to Earth, but Voyager itself is destroyed in the attempt; fifteen years later, Harry Kim and Chakotay, armed with stolen Borg technology allowing them to communicate through time, find the wreckage of Voyager and, recovering The Doctor's program so he can help them, send Seven of Nine calculations which would allow Voyager to complete the journey as well. The attempt fails, but as Kim tearfully admits defeat, The Doctor suggests he instead try to stop the ill-fated experiment, not prolong it, and moments before their ship is destroyed, Kim sends calculations which, when implemented on Voyager in the past, safely shut down the slipstream drive and return the ship to normal space.

This method of travel is also highly similar to the method of superluminal travel used on space ships in Stargate (referenced as "Hyperspace" travel), and Slipstream used in Andromeda (TV series), another space opera created by Gene Roddenberry.

In the books

Some years after Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), Pocket Books came out with a series of publications based upon the Enterprise's encounters during both its first and second five year missions. In "The Wounded Sky" written by Diane Duane, the crew picks up a Hamalki engineer, which invents a new form of the transwarp drive. Even though such books are not considered canon, the theories proposed in the book lend to the ideas of warp and transwarp, and further explain the properties of subspace.

According to the aforementioned book, warp drive does indeed create a bubble of space-time around the ship; however, it is explained that the ship is surrounded by a bubble of subspace — another universe where the speed of light is much faster than in ours; furthermore, the alternate universe is attuned with our own, such that planetary bodies are in exactly the same place, which simplifies navigation — thus the book leans toward the theories of superstring-manipulation, rather than those of warping normal space-time.

The transwarp device invented by the Hamalki uses a different approach to the same idea; in this case, it creates a field around the ship which allows it to enter De Sitter space — a space in which there is infinite energy, zero mass (with exceptions) and no absolute laws of physics. This essentially allows the Enterprise to enter De Sitter space and travel millions of times faster than light. In the narrative, the Enterprise succeeds in reaching the Small Magellanic Cloud (200 years away at warp 8), a dwarf galaxy in orbit around the Milky Way galaxy.

Slingshot effect

A curious extension of warp travel which has been shown throughout Star Trek is the "Slingshot Effect". First discovered accidentally in "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" (1967), one of the earlier episodes of the original Star Trek series, it is a method of time travel. Whereas the actual procedure is intentionally obscure, it involved traveling at a high warp velocity (depicted in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home to be over warp 9.8) in the direction of a star, on a precisely calculated "slingshot" path; if successful, the ship is caused to travel to a desired point, past or future. The same technique was used later in the episode "Assignment: Earth" (1968) for historic research — in this episode, the warp factor required for "time warp" is given the name "light speed breakaway factor" — the term "time warp" being established in Star Trek IV. The technique was mentioned as a viable method of time travel in the TNG episode "Time Squared" (1989).

This 'slingshot' effect has been explored in theoretical physics: it is hypothetically possible to slingshot oneself 'around' the event horizon of a black hole. The result of such a maneuver would cause time to pass at a faster rate, relative to the ship within the event horizon. Such a journey would, unfortunately, be a 'one-way' trip into the future — the pilot of the craft would not have 'traveled through time' in the classical sense, but would instead have merely 'skipped over' the intervening years. Travel in entropic directions other than forwards remain impossible to ascertain within the rubric of Special Relativity, but the "Time Warp" drive seen in "The Cage" (TOS) may explain some of the issues.

Fans of the show and films have noted that the Slingshot involves a star, rather than a black hole, and the most normal consensus from its use concerns the nature of warp travel and warp velocities. A black hole is noteworthy for its singularity and associated event horizon, where not even light possesses escape velocity. Warp-drive and other transluminal vehicles would however be able to escape a black hole event horizon, as they are capable of speeds greater than c. Stars do not possess an event horizon, as their escape velocities are considerably lower than those of black holes. They do however have very great masses. A vessel able to move at transluminal velocities would then be able to take advantage of relativistic physics: interaction with the mass of non-black hole stellar mass at transluminal velocities is very similar to the interaction between a subluminal vessel and a black hole event horizon, in terms of relativistic boundary interactions and equivalence of energy. A warp-ship, then, is able to perform as its own 'event-horizon' when interacting with a stellar mass.

Warp core

A primary component of the warp drive method of propulsion in the Star Trek universe is the "gravimetric field displacement manifold," more commonly referred to as a warp core. It is a fictional reactor which taps the energy released in a matter-antimatter annihilation to provide the energy necessary to power a starship's warp drive, allowing faster-than-light travel. Starship warp cores generally also serve as powerplants for other primary ship systems.

When matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate — both matter and antimatter are converted directly and entirely into enormous quantities of energy, as electromagnetic radiation. In the Star Trek universe, fictional "dilithium crystals" are used to regulate this reaction. These crystals are described as being non-reactive to anti-matter when bombarded with high levels of radiation. Usually, the reactants are deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, and antideuterium (its antimatter counterpart). In The Original Series and in-universe chronologically subsequent series, the warp core reaction chamber is often referred to as the "dilithium intermix chamber" or the "matter/antimatter reaction chamber", dependent upon the ship's intermix type. The reaction chamber is surrounded by powerful magnetic fields to contain the anti-matter. If the containment fields ever fail, the subsequent interaction of the antimatter fuel with the container walls would result in a catastrophic release of energy, with the resultant explosion capable of utterly destroying the ship. Such "warp core breaches" are used as plot devices in many Star Trek episodes. An intentional warp core breach can also be deliberately created, as one of the methods by which a starship can be made to self-destruct.

See also


  • When Stephen Hawking guest starred on the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Descent", he was taken on a guided tour of the set. Pausing in front of the warp core set piece, he remarked, "I'm working on that".[3]
  1. ^ http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/Memory_Alpha:AOL_chats/Ronald_D._Moore/ron063.txt
  2. ^ Susan Sackett (2002). Inside Trek: My Secret Life With Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry. HAWK Publishing Group. ISBN 1-930709-42-0. 
  3. ^ William Shatner; Chip Walter (2002). I'm Working on That: A Trek From Science Fiction to Science Fact. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671047-37-X. 

External links

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