Why Warp Works

The Magic Behind the Word "Engage..."

Larry Garfield

Revision History
Revision 1 19 February 2001

Posted in the ED


Table of Contents

Introduction
DISCLAIMER
The Matter/Antimatter Reaction Assembly
The Warp Nacelles
Warp 10, And Other Fun Facts
On Warp Fields
On Subspace And The Nature Of The Universe
Carrots and Donkeys
Swimming Through Space
Over-Hyped Science
Flatland to the Nth Power
Conclusion
On Ralph Nader and Environmental Warp Fields

Introduction

Like a bad penny, the issue has come up again and again. So, for the benefit of those who do not have easy access to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, the following is as complete a description of warp drive as I can offer at this time. My sources are the TNG Technical Manual, the Deep Space Nine Technical Manual, the Star Trek Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition, and the Next Generation Episode "Force of Nature," the episode which first suggested that warp drive was not environmentally sound, and other sources as noted. I will stick as close as possible to the process as described in canonical sources. I would suggest this treaties as recommended reading for anyone seeking to understand one of Star Trek's more exciting and least plausible technologies, as well as anyone interested in tackling the daunting task of augmenting or improving upon this faith-based technology.

DISCLAIMER

It should first be noted that warp drive relies on not one but several leaps of faith and suspensions of disbelief. Even though it can and has been argued by leading modern physicists that warp drive works in theory, any plausible explanations involve more energy than could possibly be generated by even a matter-antimatter reaction. Additionally, several of the key components of warp travel - subspace, warp fields, warp energy, and the like - have multiple and contradictory definitions and descriptions, even within the episodes themselves. There are, therefore, several points where we will simply have to guess or assume how something works, or simply pass it off as the work of the magical Paramount Field, which defies the comprehension of, or manipulation by, mere mortals such as ourselves who are grounded in the realm of 21st century physics. I believe the following footnote from the Next Generation Technical Manual, page 64, says it best:

["Early in the series, Patrick Stewart came up to us and asked how warp drive worked. We explained some of the hypothetical principles described in this volume, but added that such a device is far beyond present-day physics. We emphasized that no one has any real idea how to make a ship go faster than light. "Nonsense," Patrick declared. "All you have to do is say 'Engage.'" And he was right..."]

The Matter/Antimatter Reaction Assembly

The heart of the warp drive is the Matter/Antimatter Reaction Assembly, or M/ARA. It can be easily recognized as that big blue pulsating thing that dominates most engine rooms. Power is generated by means of a matter-antimatter reaction, in which both fuel components annihilate each other and produce pure energy, according to Einstein's basic equation e=mc^2, where e is energy in joules, m is the mass in kilograms, and c is the speed of light in meters per second. In Federation starships, deuterium and anti-deuterium are used. (Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen containing one proton, one neutron, and one electron.) The deuterium is stored in slush form in tanks, while the anti-deuterium is stored in large magnetic bottles at the other end of the assembly.

At each end of the assembly is a reactant injector, one for the matter and one for the antimatter. While each functions quite differently (due to the different natures of matter and antimatter), they accomplish the same goal. The matter or antimatter is compressed and channeled through one of six redundant nozzles into the Magnetic Constrictor Segments (MCS, the big blue columns). Inside these segments, strong magnetic fields compress the stream even further into the Y-axis of the segment (that is, the centerline), and increase its velocity by between 200 and 300 m/sec. It is critical that the streams be kept at precisely the center of the segment, so that they land on target for proper reaction in the Matter/Antimatter Reaction Chamber.

The Matter/Antimatter Reaction Chamber (M/ARC) is the large bulbous assembly in Engineering. It is designed to withstand the incredible pressures created inside by the reaction, and to hold the dilithium crystals necessary for the reaction. Dilithium, which is actually the abbreviated name for a far more complex crystal, is manufactured out of simpler crystals that occurs naturally but can also be created artificially. It is the only material known to Federation science that is non-reactive with antimatter when subjected to a high-frequency electromagnetic (EM) field in the megawatt range. That is not to say that it doesn't react, per se, but that the crystal becomes "porous" to antihydrogen, and the antimatter particles pass through the crystal lattice without actually touching it. (This is the first use of the Paramount Field.)

The matter and antimatter streams strike each other at the exact center of the M/ARC, inside the dilithium crystal. They come into contact, react, annihilate, and produce pure energy in the form of plasma. (Plasma is a form of super-heated matter that is sort of half matter, half energy.) The crystal also causes the plasma to be released in a periodic fashion, that is, in a "pulse." The shape of the dilithium crystal causes the plasma to be split into two separate streams, each 45 degrees off from the vessel centerline aft. Each stream enters one of two Power Transfer Conduits (PTC), which are the big pink things that come out of the back of the big ball in Engineering. (Don't you love this technical language?) There are taps into each PTC to channel a small portion of the plasma out into the Electro Plasma System (EPS), which is the equivalent of the ship's power grid. The rest travels through the PTC to the nacelle pylons, and then up the pylons to the warp nacelles.

The Warp Nacelles

The warp nacelles are where the first really fun stuff happens. Each warp nacelle in a Galaxy-class ship has 18 warp coils in it. (It is not stated if all ships have 18, or if other ships have different numbers.) Each warp coil is made of imaginary material known only to Paramount executives, and is shaped like a split toroid, that is, a donut on its side with a slice across its middle. The PTC splits into 18 separate injectors, one for each coil. When an injector "fires," it releases a small burst of plasma energy into the coil, which creates a "warp field." The injectors fire sequentially fore to aft, with the front 3 firing slightly off-time from the rest so as to take in the saucer section.

Warp 10, And Other Fun Facts

On the "modern" (TNG-era) warp scale, warp 10 is the absolute maximum speed. That is because of the way the warp scale is calibrated. The speed you get from a given power output (in cochranes) and the power usage itself do not have a 1:1 relationship. Power usage rises exponentially, while velocity rises logarithmically. The result, among others, is that the "optimal" efficiency/speed point is in fact somewhere between warp 5 and warp 6. However, for reasons that Paramount does not see it fit to explain, it actually takes more energy to reach an integral warp factor than to maintain it. That's why the ship generally travels at integral warp factors; it's more energy efficient in the long term to rev up to warp 7 and stay there than it is to run at warp 6.8. For that reason, warp 6 is the most efficient cruising speed, although recent developments in subspace disturbance and Federation environmental regulations have made warp 5 the legal cruising speed for most vessels. (See below.) Another odd idiosyncrasy is that after about warp 9.2 or so, warp velocity begins to increase exponentially as well. That means the slightest warp factor increase in that range translates into an immense increase in actual velocity.

Which brings us to warp 10, the universal speed limit. In Einsteinian physics, the speed of light is unattainable for any object that possesses mass because as velocity increases, so does mass, while time slows down. (This is modern, 20th and 21st century physics.) As an object approaches the speed of light, c, its mass approaches infinity. Therefore, the energy needed to increase its velocity increases along with it, and approaches infinity. In order for an object to reach the speed of light, it would require infinite energy, and the progression of time would slow to zero. Since neither is possible in our space-time continuum, the speed of light is not achievable by conventional means.

Warp drive side-steps that restriction by use of the loophole described below, that is, the velocity in question is relative to the local frame of reference. If the frame of reference is moving with you, well, you can't get pulled over for speeding. However, there is still the point at which energy requirements approach infinite. At that point, velocity also becomes infinite. An object traveling at infinite velocity would, by definition, occupy every point within the universe simultaneously, as the time needed to get from one point to the next would be zero. That is impossible, however, as it requires that infinite energy be used, and again that is impossible. In addition, it would require increasing the firing rate of the warp coils to less than Plank time, which is by definition the shortest extant unit of time in the universe (1.3 x10^-43 seconds). Both factors combine to make warp 10 impossible to attain in any known cosmological plane. (And the reason why most people consider the Voyager episode "Threshold" to be apocryphal, as the writer, who was hopefully executed soon after the episode, made the warp 10 barrier out to be akin to the sound barrier, which only required a stable airplane design to break.)

On Warp Fields

A subspace field and a warp field are in essence the same thing. A warp field of one cochrane is the amount of warp energy required to push a ship to warp one. A subspace field is any warp field with a strength of less than one cochrane, and is measured in milicochranes (thousandths of a cochrane).

It is the sequential firing of the warp coils that is important. Each layer of warp field is then off-centered from its neighbor, such that there is an imbalance whereby there is a greater density of warp field energy behind the ship than in front of it. In addition, each layer "presses" upon its outer neighbor, exchanging warp field forces with it, and radiates a certain amount of energy into subspace, causing the mass of the vessel to appear to be less. The cumulative forces created by the field layers cause the ship and the space around it to be propelled forwards. It is the fact that the space around the ship is also pushed forwards that avoids the time dilation effects normally associated with near light speed travel, as well as allows the ship to bypass the speed of light limit of Einsteinian physics. Such restrictions apply to objects moving at a velocity greater than c relative to their surroundings. However, since the surroundings are moving with the ship, the vessel is relatively stationary and time is therefore not dilated.

If that last paragraph sounds like a brush-off, there is a reason. That is because this is where the Paramount Field has its greatest influence. Most technical sources are deliberately vague as to how exactly a warp field exerts a non-Newtonian force on itself to cause the ship to move forward. In fact, the only decent description is found in one paragraph of the TNG Technical Manual, on page 54. It is also one of the best examples of fancy technobabble that says absolutely nothing. I have quoted it here for both education and a good chuckle.

["The key to the creation of subsequent non-Newtonian methods, i.e., propulsion not dependent upon exhausting reaction products, lay in the concept of nesting many layers of warp field energy, each layer exerting a controlled amount of force against its next-outermost neighbor. The cumulative effect of the force applied drives the vehicle forward and is known as asymmetrical peristaltic field manipulation (APFM). Warp field coils in the engine nacelles are energized in sequential order, fore to aft. The firing frequency determines the number of field layers, a greater number of layers per unit time being required at higher warp factors. Each new field layer expands outward from the nacelles, experiences a rapid force coupling and decoupling at variable distances from the nacelles, simultaneously transferring energy and separating from the previous layer at velocities between 0.5c and 0.9c. This is well within the bounds of traditional physics, effectively circumventing the limits of General, Special, and Transformational Relativity. During force coupling the radiated energy makes the necessary transition into subspace, applying an apparent mass reduction effect to the spacecraft. This facilitates the slippage of the spacecraft through the sequencing layers of warp field energy".]

For completeness, I will also quote the following paragraph from page 65:

["The propulsive effect is achieved by a number of factors working in concert. First, the field formation is controllable in a fore-to-aft direction. As the plasma injectors fire sequentially, the warp field layers build according to the pulse frequency in the plasma, and press upon each other as previously discussed. The cumulative field layer forces reduce the apparent mass of the vehicle and impart the required velocities. The critical transition point occurs when the spacecraft appears to an outside observer to be traveling faster than c. As the warp field energy reaches 1000 millicochranes, the ship appears driven across the c boundary in less than Planck time, 1.3x10^-43 sec, warp physics insuring that the ship will never be precisely at c. The three forward coils of each nacelle operate with a slight frequency offset to reinforce the field ahead of the Bussard ramscoop and envelop the Saucer Module. This helps create the field asymmetry required to drive the ship forward."]

To get an idea of what this all "looks" like, do the following. Take a piece of paper, a pencil, and a drawing compass. Draw a triangle in the middle of the paper, about 3 cm long. Place the compass at the front tip of triangle and draw a circle 4 cm in diameter. Now move the compass tip back one half-centimeter, and draw a circle 3.5 cm in diameter. Repeat moving the compass back and drawing a smaller circle until you get to the back of the triangle. The triangle is your warp nacelle. The first circle, the largest one, is the warp field from the front-most warp coil. The next circle is the field from the next coil, created a few nanoseconds later, and so on. Notice how they bunch up in back and stretch out in front, creating an imbalance. Also, the faster the warp coils fire, the denser the warp field layers, and the faster the ship goes.

On Subspace And The Nature Of The Universe

All of warp drive and warp theory is predicated on the concept of subspace, subspace fields, subspace energy, and other references to this uber-tech known as "subspace." To understand the Why of warp drive in addition to the How, it is necessary to first understand what subspace is. This becomes doubly important when determining exactly how warp drive becomes environmentally dangerous.

Before we continue, it's probably good to cite the episode that made such a big deal about subspace, and is one of the most important from a warp theorist's point of view.

The Next Generation episode "Force of Nature" introduced a new twist to the world of warp. Apparently, warp drive is damaging to subspace. Exactly how isn't completely clear, nor is how to fix it. Especially unclear is what exactly subspace is, as that changes episode to episode. In "Force of Nature", it appears to be a sort of dangerous "soup" just on the other side of a cosmic Paramount Field barrier. "Forces of Nature" leads us to the following finding of fact:

However, there is another episode that presents a very different picture of the multiverse. In the Next Generation episode "Schisms," subspace is complex enough to sustain humanoid life of some variety, even though it's a very different kind of humanoid life. This view is a very different version of subspace than the pink soup presented in "Force of Nature".

It is clear that the canonical sources and the episodes are vague at best and contradictory at worst. Many people have tried to come up with more detailed theories of what exactly goes on when the sound effects people press the "Woosh" button. All have their strong points, and all have crippling weaknesses. The most commonly cited theories are discussed below.

Carrots and Donkeys

In his book "The Physics of Star Trek," Professor Lawrence M. Krauss, a modern physicist, suggested that warp drive works by "compressing" space in front of the ship, and "expanding" space behind the ship, that is, "warping" the fabric of space. By making the space in front of the ship more gravitationally dense, and the area behind it less gravitationally dense, the ship will "fall" forwards, as will its immediate surrounding space. Since the spatial distortions occur at fixed points in front of and behind the ship, as the ship moves forward so do the distortions, and therefore the ship moves forward at a constant velocity. (Much like hanging a carrot in front of a donkey.)

In theory, the warp field somehow creates this distortion in space fore and aft of the ship by concentrating energy in front of the ship and "removing it" from behind. Since energy creates a gravitational distortion just as matter does (according to Einsteinian physics), this theory works out just fine on paper. In fact, this theory is perfectly within the bounds of modern physics, and as far as we can tell today would work perfectly.

The problem, of course, is that to create a gravity well strong enough to allow an object to "fall" faster than the speed of light requires several orders of magnitude more energy than the entirety of humanity has produced in its entire history, somewhere on the order of a black hole. It is fairly infeasible for a ship to create a black hole in front of itself every time it goes to warp, especially since it would then have no way to destroy it. The amount of fuel a starship caries is also several million times less than what would be needed for such an undertaking.

Swimming Through Space

Another theory is that "subspace" is a thin film of particles throughout the universe known as the Zero Point Field (ZPF). The ZPF is a recently developed theory in cosmology that says that at various points in time, zero-dimensional particles blip into existence out of nothingness, by literally being "pinched" out of the cosmic fabric. Technically, this would violate the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy, except that they always occur in pairs of oppositely charged particles, which attract each other, react, and cease to exist leaving no trace behind, thus restoring cosmic equilibrium. Occasionally, however, these two particles may blip into existence on opposite sides of the event horizon of a black hole. When that happens, one of them will fall into the black hole, and one will go flying off elsewhere. The one that is absorbed by the black hole will react with an equal portion of the black hole (technically that means nothing, but it is in fact something, don't ask, I don't understand it either) and restore equilibrium, thereby also reducing the mass of the black hole very slightly. The other particle can be detected by special equipment, and is known as Hawking Radiation, after noted physicist Steven Hawking. It is actually one of the cooler ways to detect the presence of black holes.

In any event, one theory of warp drive postulates that the so-called subspace field (warp field) causes ZPF particles from the front of the ship to be relocated behind it, causing a ZPF pressure differential, which pushes the ship forward. In effect, the ship "swims" through a vast sea of particles that have no mass, no dimension, and exist for an infinitesimal fraction of a second. This is logically a bit shaky. In addition, "Schisms" established that subspace is capable of supporting humanoid life of some variety. The ZPF theory would contradict this fact, as well as provide no explanation of the pink oil-slick rift in "Force of Nature".

Over-Hyped Science

A third option is to look at subspace as a parallel plane of existence to our own universe that has its own set of laws, akin to the hyperspace used by Star Wars, Babylon 5, and many other sci-fi shows. By pulling a "pocket" of this subspace into normal space around the ship, one could side-step Einstein and Newton and play by Cochcrane's rules, which are different. This theory would also account for subspace aliens who have a completely different physiology. The laws of physics are different in this alternate "dimension", so the laws of biology are probably different as well.

The hyperspace theory would also explain the "transwarp conduits" used by the Borg, the Vadwar, and others. Rather than pulling a piece of subspace into our universe, the ship moves over into that universe, travels from point A' to point B' in that universe, and then jumps back, the same way that the Han Solo or John Sheridan get from one place to another. It would also allow for, potentially, multiple such "alter-verses", and account for such oddities as fluidic space.

There's only one problem: That's not how warp works, according to the Tech Manual. Nowhere does it mention subspace being an alternate dimension, in fact it appears as a completely single-universe concept. So while it may fit observation, it doesn't fit canon in the slightest.

Flatland to the Nth Power

The final theory is that subspace is merely the name given to those parts of the universe that exist in a geometrically orthogonal direction from our spaceframe. That is, the universe really has 4 spatial dimensions; we're just stuck in the first 3 of them. By somehow "warping" 3-D space along this 4th axis, we can shorten the effective distance from point A to point B. Imagine taking a piece of flat paper and folding it accordion-pleat style, then folding each pleat down flat. You have a piece of paper that is still "flat" (2 dimensional), but by manipulating it in a 3rd dimension you have effectively shrunk it. (For more on life forms in multiple dimensions, I recommend the TV series "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, available at your local video rental, and the book "Flatland" by Edwin A. Abbott. It's a very easy read, and quite amusing.)

Sadly, this idea, too, runs into snags. Firstly, while it is possible to then have 4-dimensional species, their protrusion into our space would not be an alternate plane ("Schisms"). Rather, they would already exist within out visible frame; we would just only be able to see part of them. We cannot physically see a hypercube (4-D cube), but we can picture its 3-D shadow. In addition, it would be impossible for there to be a "rift" between normal space and subspace, since "subspace" would rightly include normal space as a subset of it. Therefore, subspace could not "bleed into" normal space. Nor could there be a "barrier" between the two if it is simply an orthogonal axis.

Conclusion

So, when all is said and done, what can we say? How can we explain how warp drive works? There is only one answer, really. All you have to do is say "Engage", and let the special effects people do their job in postproduction. It just works.

On Ralph Nader and Environmental Warp Fields

Of course, not knowing what subspace is means that we can't know how warp drive damages it. Not knowing how warp drive damages subspace leaves us with another problem, specifically, what to do about it. It should be noted here that it is the warp field energy that is the problem, not the matter-antimatter reaction in the warp core. To equate the problem to the gaseous byproducts of an internal combustion engine (carbon monoxide, among others) is incorrect. If one must use an automobile analogy, a better analogy would be to the wheels of the car. With each pass the wheel damages the ground under it, until eventually you get a pothole. (Which would make the subspace rift in "Force of Nature" a pothole worthy of the south side of Chicago.)

Apparently, one solution to the damaging effects of warp drive is what is known as "variable-geometry" nacelles, colloquially known as "swing-wing" nacelles, such as those used on the Intrepid-class. Variable-geometry nacelles are articulated so that they can "alter warp field geometry to local subspace conditions." The Star Trek Encyclopedia also claims that the Defiant-class, as well as others, also uses non-damaging warp systems, yet do not have variable-geometry nacelles. This leaves us with a quandary as to how exactly to fix the problem, as there are apparently at least two completely different ways to go about fixing it. (Or, perhaps, merely reducing it.)

At this point, the debate becomes purely academic. Without an understanding of subspace itself (see previous section), understanding how to fix the damage caused to it is impossible. While this may seem like a cop out, it is the only answer possible. What does that mean to ship designers? It means 3 things:

This will no doubt come as a great relief to designers who didn't want to have swing-wing designs but didn't want to be limited to warp 5. Is it an ideal solution? Not by a long shot. But it's the best we can hope to do.