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The Warp Drive and Other Hyperlight Technologies in Star Trek, Part IV
written by Tim Farley
originally published in Stardate 13, December 1981

Every Star Trek fan is familiar with the fact that the Enterprise uses a space warp to propel itself at hyperlight speeds. But fans rarely consider the idea that the warp drive probably would warp time as well as space. Indeed, in the original pilot, "The Cage," Captain Pike refers to a "time warp factor," and Jose Tyler makes mention of breaking the "time barrier." In what way, however, might the warp drive affect time?

According to relativity, as an object’s velocity approaches that of light, time for the object flows at a slower rate than for stationary objects. Relativity’s concept of "simultaneity" of events dictates that if an object were to exceed the speed of light, it would travel backward in time. But if the warp drive followed this theory, the crew’s incredulous reactions to the fact that time was traveling backwards in the episodes "The Naked Time" and "Tomorrow is Yesterday" would not make sense. If Einstein’s ideas apply to the warp drive, reversal of time should be quite normal.

Obviously, the ship does not exceed the speed of light in the Einsteinian sense. By warping space around the ship, the engines "cheat," making the ship "appear" (to outside observers) to travel faster than light, while it actually moves at a much lower velocity. If the engines do warp space, though, they would undoubtedly also affect time. Hence we have the time warps mentioned earlier, and again the same question arises: in what way do the engines affect time on board the ship?

Certain incidents in episodes of the show can help us determine the nature of the onboard time warps. In "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," the ship travels from Earth toward the sun at warp speed, taking about five minutes to make the journey. But light takes only eight minutes to travel that far, and a medium warp speed would dictate a travel time thousands of times shorter. Similarly in "Operation: Annihilate!" the ship takes several minutes to overtake a small (and probably quite slow, not being a Starfleet vessel) ship on its way into the Denevan sun. But at warp speeds, such an intra-system trip should have taken no more than a fraction of a second.

Likewise, in "The Changeling," Nomad fires plasma bolts at the at a speed of Warp 15 from a distance of 90,000 kilometers. That velocity is on the order of several million times the speed of light, indicating a travel time of only microseconds. But each of the bolts takes five or six seconds to reach the ship. Also, in "Elaan of Troyius," a Klingon ship strafes the Enterprise at Warp 6 or 7, but timed distance quotations from these scenes indicate a velocity of no greater than 11,OOO kilometers per second, too low by a factor of about one million!

In all of these instances, and in several "other more vague cases, events occurring outside the ship seem to be happening many times slower than they should. The only way to explain them, without writing them off as "bloopers" is to assume that time on board ship flows at a much faster rate than that outside the vessel. Inside the ship, time is accelerated! Thus the events mentioned above, which should occur on tremendously short time scales, appear to our heroes to take place at a much slower rate because the crew is living "faster" than those of us in normal space. In fact, time on board the Enterprise flows about one to ten million times faster than normal in these scenes, allowing these apparent massive discrepancies to occur.

This is the effect we have been looking for. In addition to (or in the process of) shortening the distance the ship must travel, the warp drive speeds up time on board. This can be used to great advantage during combat situations, as it greatly shortens the effective reaction times of everyone on board and allows much greater opportunity for effective tactical decision-making. However, we run into a problem here. If time for the crew passes at such a fantastic rate, the usefulness of the warp drive would be severely limited. This occurs because, although from the viewpoint of the outside world the ship travels at a tremendous speed, the accelerated lives of the crew would make the voyage appear to take years—they would believe they were actually traveling at their true (sublight) speed within the space/time warp. Starfleet personnel would lead very monotonous lives, and the five-year mission would barely get the Enterprise to the nearest star (though the trip would have lasted just a few minutes as seen from Earth).

Thus, during normal routine, the time warp must be counteracted.

Luckily, a method presents itself. The gravity field generators used to nullify the effects of acceleration on board could be used to create relativistic time dilation. According to Einstein, time travels more slowly in strong gravitational fields than in empty space. This effect could be used to counteract the acceleration of time produced by the warp engines. Thus, normally time on board would flow at a rate equal to that at which it flows in normal space. Only in battle situations or other critical times would the compensators be shut off to increase the effectiveness of the ship and crew.

Thus, the time warp effect we were looking for fits quite nicely into the Star Trek universe as a whole, and is consistent with what we already know about the warp drive.

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