Warp drive technology is the fictional innovation that allows the starships of Star Trek to travel faster than the speed of light. Without warp drive, the average episode of Star Trek would be pretty boring. No warp drive means that it takes much longer for a spaceship to travel long distances, which would mean the average season of Star Trek would have to focus on the insane travel times to reach far-away planets like Ni’Var or Qo’noS. But how does a warp drive actually work, in theory? Here’s what you need to know about this fictional technology.
How Does the Warp Drive Technology Work on ‘Star Trek’?
In two Star Trek movies, the camera films right down, close to the warp core. In "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", the warp core was extended using a matte painting. In "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" just the regular three-leveled set was seen. pic.twitter.com/iiRpBMVO08
— Jörg Hillebrand (@gaghyogi49) April 29, 2020
The warp drive on a starship in the Star Trek universe literally warps the space around it in order to travel faster than the speed of light. The warp core (usually depicted as a tall cylinder of flashing lights in Engineering) powers the warp drive.
The warp drive is what creates a subspace bubble that wraps around the entire ship. Once that bubble is created, the ship is able to travel faster than light, because the subspace bubble has warped not only space, but also time itself. Without warp drive, the long journeys between star systems would take decades or generations, rather than the much shorter times we see in Star Trek. In the series, warp drive is generally used to travel long distances, while the ship uses only its “impulse power” for shorter treks.
The “gas” that fuels a warp core is technically two fuels, carefully balanced against each other. The warp drive allows the ship to travel faster or slower based on the ratio of matter and anti-matter within the warp core chamber. The reaction is regulated or modulated through a dilithium crystal “converter assembly”, one of which was seen on screen in the TOS episode Elaan of Troyius.
There Are Other Types of Faster-Than-Light Travel on ‘Star Trek’
— TrekCore.com 🖖 (@TrekCore) April 12, 2019
While warp drive technology is the primary means of starship travel in the fictional universe of Star Trek, other types of faster-than-light travel have been shown in Star Trek media over the years. Perhaps the most recent and obvious example is the “spore drive”, the warp drive alternative used by the titular starship on Discovery. That technology allows Discovery to travel across the “mycelial network” of space in an instant. While the concept of a mycelial network is grounded in real science, the technology to use such networks for interstellar travel does not exist in real life. However, according to Forbes, future scientific discoveries could make a spore drive more feasible.
Another type of starship propulsion tech that has been featured on Star Trek is the “temporal warp core”. This technology hasn’t gotten as much screen time over the years as “traditional” warp cores, but it is referenced as the drive used by the USS Relativity, a time-traveling starship, in the Voyager episode Future’s End, Part II. It is believed that timeships like the Relativity and the Aeon create temporal rifts with their temporal cores, allowing them to travel to different points in time.
A more “ancient” form of interstellar transit that has been featured on Star Trek are the Bajoran lightships, a unique method of travel featured in the DS9 episode Explorers. In-universe, the Bajorans used this technology as early as Earth’s 16th Century. While these ships didn’t have contained warp cores, they were still capable of warp-speed travel. This was achieved by sailing through tachyon eddies in space. A tachyon is a theoretical particle in physics, believed to be capable of traveling faster than the speed of light itself.
Have Scientists Tried to Make a Warp Drive in Real Life?
If we create a city on Mars, Earth-Mars travel will be a powerful forcing function for inventing something like warp drive
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 7, 2019
Is it possible to create a warp drive in real life? It depends on who you ask, but the answer appears to be: “not yet”. According to Space.com, Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre came up with a theory about how warp drive could work in real life, but the energy required for his model is simply too great.
But energy demands aren’t enough to stop some people from continuing to dream about FTL space travel. According to Business Insider, the US Military commissioned studies on the feasibility of warp travel. In their article on the study, BI spoke to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll. “This is not something that’s going to connect with engineering anytime soon, probably anytime ever,” Carroll told reporters, in response to questions about the real feasibility of creating a warp drive.
If warp drives were ever invented in real life, it might be hard not to take some design cues from the fictional world of Star Trek. In fact, longtime Trek designer Michael Okuda once partnered with NASA to design a more “realistic” Enterprise. For longtime fans of Star Trek, hope still remains that, one day, the show’s vision of a peaceful future among the stars could become reality, even if it doesn’t happen in our lifetime.