How Warp Speed Works

The Warp Drive

The ability to manipulate space is the most important concept in regard to warp speed. If the Enterprise could warp the space-time continuum by expanding the area behind it and contracting the area in front, the crew could avoid going the speed of light. As long as it creates its own gravitational field, the starship could travel locally at very slow velocities, therefore avoiding the pitfalls of Newton's Third Law of Motion and keeping clocks in sync with its launch site and destination. The ship isn't really traveling at a "speed," per se -- it's more like it's pulling its destination toward it while pushing its starting point back.

A warp bubble surrounding a starship, which protects the ship and crew members as space and time distorts.
A warp bubble surrounding a starship, which protects the ship and crew members as space and time distorts.

Because the ideas behind Einstein's General Theory of Relativity are complex and still open to interpretation, this leaves the possibilities wide open for science fiction writers. We may not know how to bend space and time with our current technology, but a fictional civilization set in the future may be completely capable of inventing such a device with the right imagination.


The Reality of Warp Drive
How far off are we from working warp drives? Check out this interview with Dr. Richard Obousy about the possibility of real warp drives.

In the "Star Trek" universe, warp speed is accomplished through the use of a warp drive. The warp drive is powered by matter-antimatter reactions, which are regulated by a substance called dilithium. This reaction creates highly-energetic plasma known as electro-plasma, a type of matter with its own magnetic field, which reacts with the starship's warp coils. The warp coils are typically enclosed in what the "Star Trek" writers call a warp nacelle. The whole package creates a "warp field" or "bubble" around the Enterprise, allowing the ship and its crew to remain safe while space manipulates around them.

Sometime between the first television series ("Star Trek: The Original Series") and the second ("Star Trek: The Next Generation"), the writers decided to assign a limit to warp speed -- using a scale of Warp-1 to Warp-10, the Enterprise wasn't allowed to travel just anywhere at anytime, seeing as that would make plotting too easy. In the show, Warp-10 became an impossible maximum speed, an infinity in which the starship would be at all points in the universe at the same time. Warp-9.6, according to the "Next Generation" technical manual, is the highest attainable speed allowed -- it's set at 1,909 times the speed of light. Although there are some inconsistencies, the following list the different speeds in the "Star Trek" universe:

Warp Factor
Number of times the speed of light
1 1
2 10
3 39
4 102
5 215
6 392
7 656
8 1,024
9 1,516
9.6 1,909
10 Infinity

In the next section, we'll take a look at some of the problems the concept of warp speed encounters.