In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the warp drive is a form of faster-than-light (FTL) propulsion. Hyperdrive and jump drive are alternative methods of FTL travel commonly used in fiction.

The concept of using spacial warping as a means of propulsion has been the subject of theoretical treatment by some physicists (such as Miguel Alcubierre, see Alcubierre drive), although no concrete technological approach has ever been proposed, nor is there any known way of inducing the effect described by Alcubierre.

Fictional Warp history Edit

On Earth it was invented by Zefram Cochrane, in 2063, as depicted in Star Trek: First Contact (though information from The Original Series suggests that warp drive may have been first used earlier, there is no direct evidence of such). According to the latest Star Trek series, Enterprise, many other civilizations had warp drive before humans, notably the Vulcans, who had more advanced warp drive technology than humans even in the 22nd century.

In the Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage", warp was mentioned with the term "time warp". The episode revealed that the "time barrier" had recently been broken, but since this was given as news to a group of shipwrecked interstellar travelers, it could not refer to the breaking of the light barrier, as has been suggested. (The pilot episode featured a number of things inconsistent with the rest of the series.)

The speed of warp travel is usually given only in warp factors. It is generally assumed that warp 1 is the speed of light, and that at higher factors speed increases exponentially. Several episodes of the original series placed the Enterprise in peril by having it go at high warp factors, once as high as warp 14.6 ("That Which Survives"). However, the actual speed of any given warp factor is never explicity and canonically stated on screen. Furthermore, within each series travel times and interstellar distances are not presented with rigorous (or even loose) continuity.

Realising that this was a problem and wanting to remove this plot element, the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation decided that warp 10 should be the maximum. Backstage treknobabble suggests that the warp scale was recalibrated, with the new warp 5 being the old warp 6, and warp 10 being infinite speed and unattainable. The producers indicated that vessels could reach warp factors arbitrarily close to 10, but not warp 10 itself. This was done to give entities such as Q and The Traveler a loophole to travel at very fast speeds. For example, it had been estimated that the Traveler had been propelling the Enterprise at warp 9.999996. The Voyager episode "Threshold" agreed with this, in that the characters said attaining the velocity of Warp 10 was impossible — but then they achieved it anyway, with the side effect that they hyper-evolved (reversibly) into anthropomorphic newts (although many fans, production staff, and even the writer and producer of the episode Brannon Braga generally ignore the events of that episode).

It is generally accepted that a ship travelling at warp speed will not experience any form of time dilation, since there is no information exchanged between a warp ship and the universe at large. (If a ship is using its impulse drive, for slower-than-light velocities, it will experience time dilation, since an impulse-driven ship is still travelling in the normal space-time continuum. For this reason, most ships limit their impulse velocities to approximately 1/4 lightspeed.)

Transwarp driveEdit

The term "transwarp" has been used a number of times, referring to an advanced form of warp drive most commonly used by the Borg, but also the subject of an unsuccessful Starfleet development project in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Just as the generation of a warp field around a starship is required to enter warp speed without using infinite amounts of energy, thereby breaking the light barrier (a theoretically impossible event in our universe), so is a transwarp field required to reach very high FTL speeds (making a ship capable of crossing galactic distances in a very short time).

Federation experimentsEdit

The USS Excelsior (NX-2000), under the command of Captain Stiles was a Federation testbed for transwarp technology. Though not explained on-screen in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, it is assumed that transwarp is a faster version of the conventional warp drive. Excelsior's first operational test failed due to sabotage by Scotty, thus preventing Excelsior from pursuing the Enterprise. By the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Excelsior (under command of Captain Sulu) had been fitted with standard warp drive, so it is assumed that the transwarp tests were unsuccessful.

In 2374, the crew of the USS Defiant was sent on a mission to study a rare subspace compression phenomenon in Federation space. It was hoped that further study of the anomaly would lead to the creation of working transwarp drives. Unfortunately the mission was interrupted by a Jem'Hadar attack but the ship was successfully retaken by Lt.Commander Jadzia Dax, Chief Miles O'Brien, Dr. Julian Bashir and Lt.Commander Worf.

The Borg and other aliensEdit

The Borg (in the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-part episode "Descent" and in the Star Trek: Voyager final episode "Endgame") have discovered anomalies called "transwarp conduits" — regions in subspace that facilitate transwarp travel at up to 20 times faster than conventional warp drives. Borg transwarp conduits are activated by an encoded tachyon pulse. When a Borg vessel enters a transwarp conduit, it is subject to extreme gravimetric shear. To compensate, the Borg project a structural integrity field ahead of the vessel. Artificial conduits are linked together with transwarp hubs. Six hubs were known to exist, but one was destroyed in the Voyager episode "Endgame", and possibly the entire borg collective due to the neurolytic pathogen which Admiral Janeway infected herself with. This has yet to be clarified, but since the Borg are all connected, it may be that every Borg in existence was destroyed.

Borg transwarp technology is similar to the Quantum Slipstream Technology used by Arturis' people.

Warp velocitiesEdit

In the Original Series, according to Gene Roddenberry and his Trek episode writer's guide, warp factors were supposedly converted to multiples of light speed with the cubic function

$ s(w) = w^3c $ . (There is an unsubstantiated story that Roddenberry originally meant the warp numbers to simply be multiples of the speed of light, with Warp 9 being 9c, and that a group of early fans cornered him in a hotel and explained that this wouldn't work.) With that being said, that means the table for the Original Series warp speed is as follows:

Warp Factorx cVelocity (all figures approximate)
Warp 11 c3.0x105 km/s
Warp 1.53.375 c1.0x106 km/s
Warp 28 c2.4x106 km/s
Warp 327 c8.0x106 km/s
Warp 464 c1.9x107 km/s
Warp 5125 c3.7x107 km/s
Warp 6216 c6.5x107 km/s
Warp 7343 c1.0x108 km/s
Warp 8512 c1.5x108 km/s
Warp 9729 c2.2x108 km/s
Warp 9.25~791 c2.4x108 km/s
Warp 9.5~857 c2.6x108 km/s
Warp 9.75~926 c2.8x108 km/s
Warp 101,000 c3.0x108 km/s
Warp 111,331 c4.0x108 km/s
Warp 14.6~3,112 c9.3x108 km/s
Warp 153,375 c1.0x109 km/s

However, this cannot possibly be the whole story, as it would make the Enterprise far too slow for the voyages depicted in the television series. These speeds do not even correlate with solid facts and figures in some of the episodes, for example in That Which Survives the Enterprise travels at warp 8.4 for 11.33 hours and traverses 990.7 light years (as indicated in Spock's dialogue), which makes the speed more than 600,000 times the speed of light, which is two orders of magnitude larger than even warp 15. There is also the fact that the Enterprise could quite easily travel to and from the edge of the galaxy at will (Is There in Truth No Beauty and By Any Other Name), a journey which should take years at the typical warp 8, if warp 8 is merely a cube of the warp factor.

This discrepancy between the behavior of warp speeds in the show and the simple formula of the warp factor cubed was picked up by fans in the 1970's and 80's who published books like Star Trek Maps (all published material is considered non-canon, even if it is by Paramount-approved Pocket Books) where the idea of an additional factor, referred to as the Chi factor or the Cochrane factor, was used in the warp calculations. The idea was that since warp drive pulls in space, you get higher speeds in areas where there is high density of mass, and lower speeds in areas of low density. If we take a warp factor and cube it, we take that product and multiply it by the number 1292.7238 (the Chi or Cochrane factor), to get the actual speed that the ship travels at (this is the number that was factored out of the factoids from That Which Survives). The Cochrane factor represents an "average" density of space in the UFP. Other areas of space will have different values for it. This is one way to explain the relationship between stated warp factors and actual calculable speeds as given in the dialogue in the episodes. Although it is not actually canon, it at least explains how the ships behaved as they did, without having to find higher exponents to factor the warp base numbers by, as Star Trek artist Michael Okuda did later for TNG (which nobody on the show ended up paying attention to anyway).


For the later series, Okuda devised a formula based on the older one but with important differences. For warp 1–9, if w is the warp factor, s is the speed in km per second, and c is the speed of light, then

$ s(w) = w^{10 \over 3}c $ . In the half-open interval from warp 9 to warp 10, the exponent of w increases toward infinity. Thus, in the Okuda scale, warp speeds approach warp 10 asymptotically. There is no exact formula for this interval because the quoted speeds are based on a hand-drawn curve.

Here is a table with new-style warp factors and their approximate values in kilometers per second and multiples of c:

Warp Factorx cVelocity
Warp 11 c3.0x105 km/s
Warp 210.079 c3.0x106 km/s
Warp 338.941 c1.2x107 km/s
Warp 4101.59 c3.0x107 km/s
Warp 5213.75 c6.4x107 km/s
Warp 6392.50 c1.2x108 km/s
Warp 7656.13 c2.0x108 km/s
Warp 81,024 c3.1x108 km/s
Warp 91,516.4 c4.5x108 km/s
Warp 9.21,649 c4.9x108 km/s
Warp 9.61,909 c5.7x108 km/s
Warp 9.93,053 c9.2x108 km/s
Warp 9.97536,000 c1.8x109 km/s
Warp 9.997,912 c2.3x109 km/s
Warp 9.9999199,516 c6.0x1010 km/s

Here is a table of the times it would take to cover a number of distances. Since warp 1 is c, the distances for warp 1 (in years) is the light year distance. Earth's solar system is approximately 1.2x1010 km wide, measured as the diameter of the Oort Cloud.

Warpx cAcross Sol SystemTo Alpha CentauriAcross SectorAcross FederationAcross GalaxyTo Andromeda Galaxy
Warp 11 c11 hours4.36 years20 years1,000 years100,000 years2,500,000 years
Warp 210.079 c1 hour6 months1 year100 years10,000 years200,000 years
Warp 338.941 c17 minutes6 weeks6 months25 years2,564 years51,000 years
Warp 4101.59 c6.5 minutes18 days2 months10 years990 years19,800 years
Warp 5213.75 c3 minutes8.4 days34 days4.6 years467 years9,345 years
Warp 6392.50 c1.7 minutes4.6 days18.6 days2.5 years255 years5,102 years</tr>
Warp 7656.13 c1 minute2.8 days11.3 days1.52 years152 years3,048 years
Warp 81,024 c38 seconds1.7 days7.1 days1 year100 years1,953 years
Warp 91,516.4 c26 seconds1.2 days4.8 days8 months66 years1,319 years
Warp 9.21,649 c24 seconds1.1 days4.4 days7 months61 years1,217 years
Warp 9.61,909 c20.7 seconds23 hours3.8 days6 months53 years1,051 years
Warp 9.93,053 c13 seconds14 hours2.4 days3.8 months33.3 years660 years
Warp 9.97536,000 c6.6 seconds7.1 hours1.2 days1.9 months16.9 years335 years
Warp 9.997,912 c5 seconds5.4 hours22 hours1.4 months12.8 years254 years
Warp 9.9999199,516 c.2 seconds12.8 minutes52 minutes1.6 days6 months10 years

The later series were better at keeping to these speeds than the original; however, they were still far from perfect. Later episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (such as "Descent") contradicted these speeds and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine depicted Federation Starfleet strategic operations (fleet movements) which would have been impossible under the Okuda scale. Star Trek: Voyager, though its premise was generally based on the Okuda scale, had several notable instances, such as in the episode "Parallax" or "The 37's", where the stated warp velocities varied wildly from the Okuda standard.

In general, the farther away a Star Trek show is in production date from the publish date of the Star Trek Technical Manual, the more likely a ship would be to travel at the "speed of plot". For example, in the Star Trek: Enterprise pilot episode they give a time and speed to Neptune that accords with the original series' formula, but then they estimate a trip to the Klingon Homeworld at warp 5 as a four-day journey, placing it just one light-year away from Earth—far closer than the nearest stellar system, Alpha Centauri. This plot hole has later been wrapped up by various sources that suggest that there is a spatial rift that allowed the Enterprise to arrive at the Klingon homeworld in such a short length of time, and that it was the Vulcans who provided Enterprise with the whereabouts of this shortcut. It should be noted, however that such a high speed for warp 5 is consistent with the extremely high speed given for warp 8.4 in That Which Survives, which has the speed at over 600,000 times lightspeed (therefore warp 5 would be 161,500 times lightspeed). In those terms, four days travel at warp 5 places the Klingon homeworld at 1,772 light years (or 536 parsecs) away from Earth.

Warp theory and technologyEdit

For a more in-depth discussion of warp propulsion systems, refer to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual by Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda. Chapter 5, "Warp Propulsion Systems", discusses the following topics:

  • Warp field theory and application, including warp measurement, velocities, and limits.
  • Matter-antimatter reaction assembly, including reactant injectors, magnetic constriction segments, reaction chamber, the role of dilithium, and power transfer conduits.
  • Warp field nacelles, including plasma injection system, warp field coils, and warp propulsive effect.
  • Antimatter storage and transfer, warp propulsion system fuel supply, Bussard ramjet fuel replenishment, and onboard antimatter generation
  • Engineering operations and safety, emergency shutdown procedures, and catastrophic emergency procedures

However, it should be noted that the shows often contradicted both the TNG and DS9 technical manuals.

The essence to continuum distortion propulsion lies in the generation of a warp field around the ship. This field is created when the subspace coils of the warp nacelles are energised with energetic plasma produced from the matter/antimatter reaction.

The key to overcoming the limit imposed by Einstein's theory is that the subspace field reduces the gravitational constant of the object it surrounds. If the gravitational constant can be reduced to zero with a field of influence - in this case, the subspace field - then conventional relativity does not apply, since the mass component has been nullified. The ship achieves propulsive force through asymptotic peristaltic field manipulation. This is where the subspace field is energised in a forward-to-aft configuration, thus moving space around the ship, hence the name, continuum distortion propulsion. One warp field will give a velocity of warp one, which is funnily enough not quite the speed of light. Objects travelling at this velocity, indeed light itself, alternate between two velocity states while remaining at neither for no longer than Planck time.

The key to achieving higher warp factors lies in nesting multiple warp fields in each other and moderating the coupling and decoupling rate of the warp fields. in higher warp velocities it is the coupling and decoupling effect that gives rise to greater propulsive force. As the warp factor graph above indicates, the energy required to reach high warp factors grows at an increasing rate, making it seemingly impossible to reach warp 10. The field coupling and decoupling rate would exceed Planck time, as would the energy requirements exceed the capacity of a warp core.

Since the warp fields are aligned and generated in a forward-to-aft configuration, it raises the question as to what happens when the fields are out of alignment. Presumably, this would have a catastrophic effect on the ship's structural integrity - one part of the ship would be travelling faster than the other and it would be ripped apart.

The Slingshot EffectEdit

A side effect of Warp travel which has been shown throughout Star Trek is "the Slingshot effect". First discovered by accident in "Tomorrow is Yesterday", one of the first episodes of the original Star Trek series, it is a method of using a Warp drive to travel through time. While the actual procedure is intentionally obscure, it involved travelling at high warp speed towards a star (established in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home to be somewhere over Warp 9), on a precisely calculated "slingshot" path, and if successful it can allow for travel to the future or past. The same technique was used later in the episode Assignment Earth intentionally for historic research (where it is given the technical name "light speed breakaway factor), and again in Star Trek IV (where it was called "time warp"). The technique was mentioned as a viable method of time travel in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Time Squared.

Warp and the environmentEdit

In the Season 7 Next Generation episode "Force of Nature", it was revealed that warp drive travel can be detrimental to subspace, and in some areas it can cause subspace fissures along heavily traveled routes. Travel faster than warp 5 was banned in the aforementioned episode, but there is argument among fans as to whether the ban exists only in the affected areas of space, or in all areas. If it is a universal limit, it is widely ignored and rarely even mentioned in later episodes and series. However, there was a case, in an episode of TNG, of Picard ordering faster than warp 5 travel and someone reminding him of the ban. Some fans have speculated that a technological solution was found, possibly involving the warp engines on the USS Voyager. This has been confirmed by the library, explaining that Voyager was designed to go faster than warp 5 without causing subspace damage such as fissuring of space. The Sovereign Class Enterprise-E also featured advanced Warp Drive engines that allow travel at very high warp velocities without damaging the fabric of space.

Is a nonfictional warp drive possible?Edit

As many Star Trek fans know, many of the futuristic technologies featured on Star Trek have actually been created (such as the hypospray) or are currently being researched (e.g., the VISOR). In 1996, NASA established the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program, which sponsored some speculative work on warp drives. This program was discontinued in 2002.

While thought experiments on the wilder shores of theoretical physics continue, no scheme that may allow "warp speed" travel has yet been devised that has been accepted by mainstream science. Some physicists have proposed a model of FTL travel, formulated in the context of Lorentzian manifolds, which are used in general relativity to construct spacetime models. However, contrary to a common misunderstanding, these models are in no sense solutions to the Einstein field equation, and they give absolutely no hint of how to actually make a warp bubble. These models do however show that while it is indeed impossible to go faster than the speed of light, in principle it might be possible to circumvent the problem by suitably "warping" spacetime itself. The best known such, known as the Alcubierre drive, has the amusing feature that its terminology is in accord with Trek jargon: "warp factors" measure the warping of space (or rather spacetime), not actual speed.

Manipulated spacetimeEdit

String theory (and all other theories involving hidden dimensions) predict that gravity and electromagnetism unify in hidden dimensions and that the hidden dimensions are indetectible because of their small size. It does also predict that sufficiently short-waved photons, with wavelengths shorter than the size of the hidden dimensions, can enter them. Producing ultra-short photons can thus manipulate gravity, with revolutionizing space travel applications such as cheap anti-gravity launches. The problem that it would require high energy can be practically solved by concentrating several laser beams on a nanoparticle, heating it to locally extreme temperatures. An Alcubierre metric can be created by ejecting multiple nanoparticles from the craft and then beam perfectly timed laser beams on them (fire at the most distant first so that they are hit simultaneously), so each nanoparticle contributes a slower than light effect but together add up to faster than light, creating no discrete event horizon and thus no Hawking radiation.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Here is a small selection of speculative articles from the physics literature:

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