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The Warp Drive and Other Hyperlight Technologies in Star Trek, Pt. 6
written by Tim Farley
originally published in Stardate 16, October 1982

We’ve examined many of the various aspects of faster-than-light travel in Star Trek. We refuted the conventional "warp factor cubed" theory of velocities; and we looked at the reason for the term "warp factor" and how this affects what might be a correct velocity formula. We’ve examined some possible replacement warp drive formulae. We explored the idea that the warp drive would also warp time on board the ship, and we extended this effect to the impulse drive, which we now know to be a faster-than-light engine as well.

In this installment we will explore possible manners in which the warp drive could be powered—just how much energy is needed, and if the required amount could be supplied by the engines as described in the show. As usual, we will first need to look at what was said during the course of the series, and thereby see what constraints have been placed on the engines by the writers of Star Trek.

Of course, it is a well-known fact that the warp engines are powered by the mutual annihilation of matter and anti-matter in a controlled reaction. the "integrator unit" bottles up antimatter as an extremely hot gas, or plasma. In a plasma, all electrons are stripped from the atoms of the gas by the extremely high temperature. This makes all of the atoms electrically charged, and hence they can be manipulated by magnetic fields; just as an electric current flowing in a magnetic field forces the motion of an electric motor. We know that the antimatter is hot from "The Corbomite Maneuver" and "The Naked Time," and in the latter episode Scotty assuredly states, "You can’t mix matter and antimatter cold." The use of antimatter as a plasma and its manipulation by magnetic fields is also seen in "That Which Survives." From this same episode we see that the power production for the entire warp drive can be shut down from a single spot (the horizontal access tube that Scotty entered) and that certain critical components (the "emergency overload bypass valve" and the "matter/antimatter-integrator control cutoff switch") of the warp drive are located not in the outboard nacelles, but on the Engineering Deck(s).

Mention has also been made ("The Apple" et al) of the "potency" of the antimatter on board the ship—a confusing word choice, since antimatter is merely normal matter with reversed electric charges and magnetic moments, not something that can "go bad." "Regeneration" of the warp drive has also been mentioned, in times when the engines were damaged in "Where No Man... ," "The Naked Time," The Apple" and "One of our Planets is Missing," among others. Similarly, mention has been made of "re-energizing" the engines in "Where No Man ... " and "Tomorrow is Yesterday." And finally, there has never been any extensive mention of fuel storage or consumption in relation to the warp drive. True, Kirk signs a "fuel consumption report" in "The Deadly Years," but this could easily be in reference to the impulse engines, which have been seen ("Where No Man ..." and "Mudd’s Women," et al) to consume energy (and thus fuel) at a furious pace. Obviously, fueling the warp drive is not such a critical matter, or we would have heard more about it in bridge dialog.

Having reviewed these facts about the warp drive, let us now examine some facts about matter-antimatter reactions. Almost everyone is familiar to some degree with Einstein’s famous relativity equation, E = mc2. This formula equates mass and energy, stating that each is merely an alternate form of the other. It was this formula which led to the prediction and discovery of antimatter, and, ultimately, the atomic bomb. This equation indicates that when a matter particle meets an antimatter particle, mutual annihilation occurs, resulting in the release of a tremendous amount of energy, as predicted by the formula. This is the most efficient engine imaginable, as it converts all of the mass of the fuel to energy—there is no "exhaust" or other waste products to dispose of, assuming all of the energy released is recovered for use, and not wasted. This is why it was chosen by the producers and scientific advisors of Star Trek as the motive force behind the warp drive.

Thus, if we have a mass of antimatter to use as fuel, and we introduce it to an equal mass of matter, we release an amount of energy, E = 2mc2, were m is the amount of antimatter (and matter) used, and hence 2m is the total mass being converted to energy.

If we wish to accelerate the Enterprise, which Scotty said masses "almost a million gross tons" ("Mudd’s Women "), to some speed, we must calculate its energy of motion (kinetic energy) at that speed, and release an equal or greater amount of energy from our reaction for use in the drive. Now, E = mc2 is an incredible amount of energy by anyone’s standards, and indeed, it doesn’t take much matter to generate some speeds for the ship. To push the million­ton ship to 55 miles per hour, it would require considerably less matter (and antimatter) than is in the ink in the period at the end of this sentence. To accelerate the ship to the speed of the Apollo program’s Saturn V boosters, about three quarters of a pound of antimatter would be needed (with an equal amount of matter). How’s that for a small fuel tank?

But the Enterprise moves at speeds which put the Apollo rockets to shame. It performs the incredible feat of accelerating up to the speed of light, and the even more incredible feat of exceeding that speed. And it is at these velocities that objects acquire positively huge energies of motion. As Einstein’s relativity dictates, the effective mass of a moving object gets larger as it moves faster. Thus, the energy of motion of our ship increases not only because of increasing velocity, but also because of the increasing mass of the ship as it approaches the speed of light. Thus the energy of motion, or kinetic energy of a moving object increases to an incredibly large number as the object accelerates to a significant fraction of the speed of light. In fact, the energy of motion of a ship moving at the speed of light would be infinity, and this is why traveling at (or beyond) that speed is impossible according to Einstein, since there is obviously not an infinite amount of energy in the universe.

Thus, while traveling close to the speed of light, the ship would have a tremendous energy of motion, which would require an equally tremendous amount of antimatter and matter to produce this energy. In fact, where before we annihilated the equivalent of some tiny fraction of the mass of the ship to achieve recognizable speeds, we now have to annihilate many times the mass of the ship in antimatter to have it approach the speed of light.

To travel 99% of the speed of light, the equivalent of one and a half times the mass of the ship would have to be annihilated. And this is only the antimatter: an equal amount of matter would also be required to carry out the reaction. This is not to mention the fact that this does not include the energy required to do other things such as slow the ship back down, use weapons, provide life support for the people on board, etc. Obviously, literally hundreds of times the mass of the ship in antimatter must be carried on board, with an equal amount of matter, if the ship is to be anywhere near the formidable space warship it seems to be.

And now we have the additional requirement of faster-than­light travel. The warp drive undoubtedly uses tremendous amounts of energy, even when compared to the huge amounts necessary for fast sublight speeds. We cannot estimate exactly, of course, since this is where we leave the realm of present-day theoretical physics and enter the realm of fiction; but obviously we must now require many thousands of times the mass of the ship in matter and antimatter fuel, for the ship to perform the various accelerations, decelerations and other energy intensive tasks required of it by what we have seen in the series.

This is a serious problem. Our calculations indicate that greater than 99% of the total mass of the ship, and its fuel must be devoted to the fuel itself. But the Enterprise as we know it is largely taken up by crews’ quarters, science labs, engine rooms, etc., and can’t possibly be hiding that much antimatter (and matter) inside. So it doesn’t seem likely that the warp drive would operate with the fuel requirements that we have shown it to have.

Since we’ve touched on this aspect, let us now look more specifically at the Enterprise and how it is designed. As we all know, the ship consists of the saucer-shaped "main section," the cigar-shaped "engineering section" and the tubular "warp drive nacelles." These interconnected sections of the ship are covered by a smooth skin, presumably matching the curvature of the various deflector fields which protect the vessel from both offensive attack and damage by natural space gas, dust and other objects encountered at high speeds. But many elements of the design of the vessel, though beautiful and symbolic, are enigmatic when examined from a designer’s standpoint. For instance, why are there translucent domes over the front of the warp engines? Certainly they appear impressive, but shouldn’t a great deal more protection be required for the delicate warp drive mechanisms?

Another anomalous design feature is the flat front of the engineering section. Behind the large antenna-like structure, the elsewhere prevalent smooth, tapered skin design is abandoned. One would think that this would subject the areas near this structure to a higher-than-normal rate of particle collisions and radiation as the ship moves through interstellar space at hyperlight speeds, especially if the navigational deflector should fail for some reason. It seems unlikely that the regular deflectors, which presumably act somewhat close to the outer skin of the ship, could stop oncoming particles 100% of the time, especially if large ones should be encountered at high speeds. And if so, why did the designers of the ship find it necessary to ignore the principle of streamlining the ship in this case, on both the old and the new Enterprises?

Also, in this same portion of the ship, we find ring-like circular structures on both the old and the new Enterprises. What purpose could these unusual, large protrusions serve on the other­wise streamlined vessel? Obviously the antenna device on the front of the engineering hull helps protect and/or see ahead of the ship while at warp speeds, but the placement of windows on the engineering section indicate that a disproportionately large volume of the front portion of this section contains no habitable areas. Is this entire area devoted to the navigational deflectors/ sensors? Similarly, on the new Enterprise, we see vent-like structures on the engines and engine pylons which beg explanation. Like the domes on the engines of the old Enterprise, they seem strange when taken in the context of their use on a space vehicle.

Well, I have an idea which synthesizes these problems into an ordered, explanation of both the design of the ship and the lack of sufficient fuel storage areas on board. I submit that the Enterprise uses a giant space matter intake, much like that of a Bussard ramjet (interstellar ramscoop) engine, to fuel the warp drive and other systems on board the ship. A Bussard ramjet, proposed in 1960 as a way to build a starship and since incorporated into many science fiction stories (such as those by Poul Anderson and Larry Niven), is a ship with a massive electromagnetic field projected in front of it to "scoop up" the hydrogen found in interstellar space for use as fuel. As the gas accelerates down the magnetic field into the engines of the ship, it heats up, eventually to temperatures which allow nuclear fusion to occur. The rapidly expanding gas then accelerates out of the rear of the vessel at a greater velocity than that at which it entered the vessel, and the ship is propelled forward by a rocket reaction.

I propose that the Enterprise projects just such a field in front of itself, scooping up hydrogen for the warp drive. But instead of allowing the hydrogen to fuse into helium and other, more complex elements, the engines use the gas as raw material for a linear accelerator (like the "atom smashers" built by scientists today) which creates antimatter for use in the reaction which powers the warp drive.

Thus there is no problem with fuel storage on board, as fuel is "scooped up" as needed from the space surrounding the ship. Likewise, the flat front of the engineering section is no longer anomalous, as this is the main matter intake port for the warp drive. The antenna device obviously not only generates sensor beams and navigational deflectors for the ship, but also the ram­scoop field (or portions of it) for the ship’s engines. The antenna on the original series Enterprise is probably permeable (transparent) to oncoming gas or the fields it generate direct the flow of matter around it into the vents. On the new Enterprise, this equipment has been built into the ship more compactly, and the obvious glow is caused by the hot incoming gas.

The domes, then, on the warp nacelles (and the vents on the updated vessel) could actually be additional scoops or vents for matter used in the reactions. The holes on the rear of the old ship’s engines (seen in stock footage shot before the eleven-foot miniature was modified for use in the series) could be outlets for waste materials or unneeded extra matter. The globes may retract and the vents snap into place, allowing for the venting of waste material. It’s also possible that this is the same vent used by the dikironium cloud vampire which enters the ship through exhaust vents.

And, finally, the references to the "potency" of the antimatter refer to the amounts of usable antimatter being produced by the onboard linear accelerator—when not properly adjusted, little usable antimatter would be produced, and the engines would be rendered useless. In the case of the Enterprise’s passage into the cloud creature in "One of Our Planets Is Missing," the reinforced shields prevent the intake of matter for conversion. The "regeneration" of the engines refers not only to the collection of small amounts of antimatter for use in accelerating the ship up to speeds at which the rams coop will collect enough hydrogen to make the engines self-sufficient, but also to getting the linear accelerator up to full efficiency in its production of new antimatter.

This also explains the design of the engine rooms on the ship, insofar as a great deal of the actual warp engine circuitry is located in and around them and not in the nacelles. Since the central ramscoop and linear accelerator are located in the engineering section, and indeed are the reason for having this separate section of the vessel, obviously a great deal of the engine mechanisms would be located here as well. The highly critical dilithium crystals probably play some key role in this process, perhaps in initiating the creation of antimatter in the linear accelerator, generating the ramscoop field, and/or focusing the energy produced by the engines.

Well, there you have it—yet another explanation of treknology which not only clears up some problems, but enriches the background of the series as well.

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