Warp Drive & Transporters: How 'Star Trek' Technology Works (Infographic)

Where did all that superscience tech come from?
(Image credit: Karl Tate/Space.com)


The original "Star Trek" television series featured technology that had first appeared decades earlier in science fiction stories. Pulp heroes had been wielding ray guns, flying faster than light and teleporting from place to place since the 1930s. But perhaps the true inspiration of Star Trek’s superscience is the revolutionary physics discoveries of the early 20th century. Relativity, discovered by Albert Einstein and quantum physics, pioneered by Max Planck  revealed a universe far different than ordinary human experience might suggest.

Although Einstein’s theory forbids matter to accelerate past the speed of light, the demands of sci-fi storytelling require that people be able to travel between the stars in a reasonable amount of time, usually hours, or at most, days. Enter the space warp drive, or as it was called in "Star Trek’s" pilot episode, "hyperdrive."

Warp drive in Star Trek works by annihilating matter (in the form of deuterium, a kind of hydrogen gas) and antimatter in a fusion reaction mediated by dilithium crystals. This produces the enormous power required to warp space-time and drive the ship faster than light.

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The crew of the Enterprise measures velocity in warp factors. Warp factor 8 equals the cube of 8 (8 times 8 times 8), or 512 times light speed.

Even this velocity is too slow to allow starships to travel as quickly as they appear to on TV. In reality, the script writers arbitrarily allowed the Enterprise to get to wherever it was going, as fast as was convenient for storytelling. By the era of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the warp speed scale was recalibrated. Under the new scale, a starship could get from Earth to Alpha Centauri in about 37 hours at warp factor 8.

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Science fiction author E.E. "Doc" Smith describes a spaceship traveling at a speed "thousands of times greater than that of light" in his novel "Skylark of Space," written between 1915 and 1921 and serialized in "Amazing Stories" magazine in 1928.

The technology and style of "Star Trek" was influenced by the 1955 film "Forbidden Planet." United Planets Cruiser C-57D (above) used its quanto-gravitic hyperdrive to greatly surpass the speed of light. The cruiser travels to the star Altair, 16.7 light-years from Earth, in 378 days.

In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre proposed moving not a spaceship, but space itself, faster than light. All that would be required is to distort the fabric of space-time into a bubble surrounding a spaceship. Enormous energy would be required, but once created, the bubble would move independently of the rest of the universe, even faster than light.

The bubble moves by compressing the space-time in front of it and expanding the space-time behind it.

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NASA scientist Harold "Sunny" White believes as-yet-undiscovered "negative energy" could be used to create the space-warp bubble, using a smaller amount of total energy than Alcubierre thought possible.

A plausible alternative to traveling across space is the wormhole, a shortcut between two widely separated points in space-time. Scientists Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen first proposed the wormhole, or "Einstein-Rosen Bridge," in 1935. Wormholes have not yet been observed in nature, but they are not forbidden by our current understanding of physics.

If they exist, wormholes would permit travel faster than light and backward through time (at least to the time when the wormhole was created).

In "Star Trek's" Transporter device, normal matter is converted temporarily into energy, then beamed to a target point for restoration to its original pattern and structure. The Transporter has a range of about 16,000 miles (25,750 kilometers).

The "Vibra-Transmitter" described in Frank K. Kelley’s 1933 story "Into the Meteorite Orbit" functions similarly to Star Trek’s Transporter. The human body is "reduced to vibration traveling on a wave-channel" and then reintegrated into matter in a receiving chamber.

In real-world science, subatomic particles can be quantum teleported, but this only transmits a quantum state between a pair of entangled particles, not the particles themselves. The human body contains an immense number of atoms, about 10^27 (one followed by 27 zeroes). Recording the quantum states of all these atoms would require an unrealistic amount of data storage. Even worse, quantum physics prevents the precise measurement of the individual atoms.

Deflector shields (or "screens") are an invisible force-field barrier activated automatically by the ship's computer when needed. Screens can be maintained continually for 20 hours before the ship’s power is exhausted. Transporters cannot be used when the screens are enveloping the ship.

Navigational deflector beams sweep the space ahead of the ship to shove aside obstacles such as small asteroids. Anything too large to be deflected triggers the ship’s computer to change course to avoid collision.

In earlier sci-fi, deflectors for diverting meteoroids out of a spaceship’s path show up in "The Ethical Equations” by Murray Leinster, published in "Astounding Science Fiction" in 1945. 

Lawrence Krauss, in his book "The Physics of Star Trek," supposes that to bend light (or phaser beams), deflector shields would have to warp space-time around the starship. But if warp drive is possible, deflector shields that work this way are perhaps also possible.

Tractor beams are a form of reverse deflector beam, pulling instead of pushing. The tractor beam has a range of about 100,000 miles (160,930 km).

E.E. "Doc" Smith uses the exact term "tractor beam" to describe force beams for grabbing objects in space in his 1931 story "Spacehounds of IPC," published in "Amazing Stories."

In real-world science, microscopic particles of matter have been manipulated in the laboratory with laser beams. Starships are much more massive. Tractor beams that work on an electromagnetic principle might be plausible in theory. However, Newton’s laws require that if the Enterprise pulls on another object with its tractor beam, the Enterprise itself will be moved toward the object. The Enterprise must fire thrusters to remain in place during the operation.

A phaser is an energy beam that can be "phased" to interfere with the wave pattern of any material object. Settings include dematerialize (converts matter to energy), disrupt (breaks down molecular cohesion), heat (increases molecular velocity) and stun (impacts the nervous system of a living target). Phasers can also be adjusted for use as cutting torch or welder.  A phaser set to overload creates a powerful explosion. The ship's main phaser batteries can destroy matter over vast distances and are powered directly by the warp engines. 

The Martian heat ray in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel "The War of the Worlds" is very much like a ray gun or death beam. In the 1920s and 1930s, some scientists, including Nikola Tesla, believed that a death ray capable of killing at a distance was feasible. Toy Buck Rogers guns began appearing in the 1930s, one of which was called a “disintegrator pistol.”

Weapons exist today that are capable of stunning the human nervous system (the taser, for example). However, tasers require physical contact to deliver their charge. Due to the inverse square law by which energy decreases as distance increases, to disintegrate matter at a distance a phaser weapon would have to generate an incredible amount of energy. Military research continues into developing directed energy weapons capable of shooting down missiles.

A photon torpedo is an energy pod of matter and antimatter separated by a magno-photon force field. They can be fired directly as torpedoes, laid in a mine field or scattered in an enemy’s path like modern-day depth charges. Electrochemical, proximity and other fuses are available. 

Photon torpedoes require a quantity of antimatter. Generating even a few atoms of antimatter uses up an enormous amount of energy. The starship’s warp drive, powered by antimatter, also has this problem.

In theory, the explosive yield of one gram (0.04 ounces) of antimatter and an equal quantity of matter is about 43 kilotons (possibly lower in actual practice). Background material for the Next Generation series says that photon torpedoes carry 1.5 kilograms 3.3 pounds) of antimatter. 

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Karl Tate
Space.com contributor

Karl's association with Space.com goes back to 2000, when he was hired to produce interactive Flash graphics. From 2010 to 2016, Karl worked as an infographics specialist across all editorial properties of Purch (formerly known as TechMediaNetwork).  Before joining Space.com, Karl spent 11 years at the New York headquarters of The Associated Press, creating news graphics for use around the world in newspapers and on the web.  He has a degree in graphic design from Louisiana State University and now works as a freelance graphic designer in New York City.