Blog-a-Day #9 -- A Warped Perspective

Star Trek is arguably the most successful science fiction franchise of all time. “Arguably” because Star Wars, in all of its incarnations, has made more money. But, when it comes to fan loyalty, the Star Trek franchise with nine television series and three or four more in development, along with thirteen feature films and more in development. One of the central technologies the Star Trek universe, aside from the transporter which we’ll talk about in a future article, is the faster than light Warp Drive. In fact, a civilization’s development of warp drive signals their entrance into the galactic community and the lifting of the Prime Directive—the Federation’s non-interference directive.

As far as I know, the Star Trek canon does not describe the mechanism of warp drive, but there is a well of resources that describe how to calculate “warp factors” relative to c, as well as a lot of discussion about the evolution of warp drive over the course of the canonical timeline. Not all of those discussion and explanations are consistent, though. We can make some assumptions about what how warp drive works by looking at how it doesn’t work

Warp drive isn’t a “jump drive”, or based on wormholes, or hyperdrive, and it doesn’t fold space. We’ll talk about these and more in the future. Compared to the other FTL methods, warp drive is unique in that while traveliing under warp drive, a spacecraft can still interact with objects in “normal” or subluminal space. This is very useful from a fictional story perspective. Being able to identify an FTL craft by its “warp signature” means you can track and chase an adversary at warp speeds. After all, what is a space opera without a good chase scene?

Why is warp drive needed and how does it work? Or, why can’t we just keep accelerating faster and faster? It’s all Albert Einstein’s fault. His Special Theory of Relativity, which has be proven again and again, says that the closer you get to c, the more energy it takes to go any faster. In fact, it takes an infinite amount of energy just to get to c. So, if you can’t go faster than c in normal space, you have to either leave normal space, or change the speed of light in your space. Warp Drive does the latter.

Special Relativity says that the speed of light is a fundamental property of space-time. “Space-time” is a term for our universe that refers to the, ahem, three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. Einstein’s theory demonstrated that space and time are as inextricably linked as are the three spatial dimensions we normally experience. If only we could make c less fundamental.

We know that the fabric of space-time can be changed. Ever since the Big Bang at the very beginning of our universe, space-time has been expanding in all directions. At intergalactic scales, galaxies keep receding from each other. That’s one way. Another is how space-time is bent around massive objects. In fact, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity says that gravity itself is a manifestation of bent space-time. So, if space-time is stretching and bending, perhaps there is another “direction” that it can be changed.

The theory behind Warp Drive is that through some mechanism the space around, or at least in front of the spaceship is “warped” in such a way that c, the speed of light increases. The stronger the warp field, the more warping takes place, and the more c is increased. And we’re talking about big increases. For example, depending on which series you watch, the standard operating speed for starships ranges from two hundred to tens of thousands of times normal c.

This is the kind of speed increase you need if your stories take people between star systems. Stars are very, very far apart, and start systems that house interesting or habitable planets are tens or hundreds of light years apart. To keep travel time short enough to make an effective story, speed that are thousands of times c really necessary. Better yet, at least for fast-paced tales, would be a space drive that took you from here to there in the blink of an eye. We’ll talk about a couple those drives starting next time.

Rob Johnson

May 24, 2020


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