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The Warp Drive and Other Hyperlight Technologies in Star Trek, Part II
written by Tim Farley
originally published in Stardate 8, February 1981

In part I of this series, the idea that the speed of the Enterprise (or any other warp-driven craft) is the warp factor cubed, multiplied by the speed of light was refuted. The destruction of this long popular idea was achieved through careful analysis of the journeys of the Enterprise, using only factual data from the show.

Since we are viewing this theory objectively, we might now speculate on whether it was viable in the first place. If velocity is indeed related to the warp factor by such a simple, pat relationship as "warp factor cubed", there is no point in bothering with the vague term "warp factor." It is equally simple and understandable to say "512 times light" as it is to say "warp factor eight." The act of mentally calculating a velocity from a warp factor might cause slight inefficiencies in the (non-Vulcan) members of the command crew, in their ability to react to commands, etc. If indeed the warp factor is a figure tangibly related to power consumption or fuel intake rate, the term would have been best left to the engineers. The bridge crew would use the easiest and most recognizable notation possible.

In addition, in several instances ("Obsession," "Amok Time," and "Turnabout Intruder" to name a few) the captain has requested an ETA to same planet or object from the helmsman or navigator. Now, the captain must know at all times the ship’s position relative to any objects of interest, in order to effectively do his job. He would thus know the distance to any abject of interest. If the velocity is indeed merely the warp factor cubed times C (the speed of light), the captain would be able to quickly calculate an ETA in his head. In fact, this should be second-nature to any Starfleet officer who has risen through the ranks. The fact that Kirk did ask for ETAs indicates that there is something wrong with the situation. We’ll find the answer to this problem later.

By now one might be wondering about what is left, if we throw out the one link between the warp drive and reality. Well, there is still quite a bit of material we can work with. We are about to explore a qualitative relationship between warp factors and actual velocities.

Let’s first take a look at the subspace radio. Obviously, the subspace signals are sent using a technology very closely related to the warp drive: a space warp is created, and a communicative signal (instead of a ship) is placed in it. The signal thereby travels at velocities much greater than C. In fact, subspace signals must travel many times faster than the ship itself, or they would be useless. The ship could travel to a Starbase and deliver the message itself more effectively, if subspace signals traveled at a speed less than or equal to the speed of the ship. Since the subspace radio has been demonstrated as an effective means of communication, the signals must indeed travel at hyperlight velocities much greater than those of the ship.

In several instances, subspace radio has facilitated direct, real-time conversations between the officers of the Enterprise and Starfleet officials (or other persons some great distance away). Conversations such as these have been seen in "Balance of Terror," "Dagger of the Mind," "The Alternative Factor," "Tomorrow is Yesterday," "Amok Time," "The Trouble With Tribbles," "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky," "Mark of Gideon," and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." As we all know, the finite speed of communicative signals puts a limit on how far apart two parties can be and still have a normal conversation. On the moon, the speed of light causes a 2.6 second delay in receiving replies to messages sent. At the distance of Saturn, a 2a hour delay occurs between the dispatch of a message and the receipt of the reply. Obviously, subspace messages, despite their enormous speeds, create analogous delays over the tremendous distances between the stars.

The fact that Kirk has spoken to Admirals and others normally over interstellar distances can help us set up a minimum speed for subspace messages. The average distance between "adjacent" (closest) stars in our galaxy is about 3 to 5 light years. It’s rather unlikely that the solar system the Starfleet official is in (be it Earth’s System, or that of a Starbase) is the closest one to the position of the Enterprise in these cases. It’s statistically likely that the Starbase is some 50 to 100 light years from the ship. This also agrees with the Enterprise’s expressed purpose of exploring new worlds on the edge of known space. It wouldn’t make much sense to put a Starbase (and the officials in it) in completely unexplored territory. More likely, the Starbases are built after an area has been explored (and a suitable location sufficiently investigated). The Starbase then serves as a base for the exploration of the regions beyond.

Thus we can assume that normal conversations are possible over distances of 40 light years of greater. Leaving room for a delay of 3 seconds in travel (6 seconds total), which is kind of long, the minimum velocity of subspace signals would be 525 million times C. In "The Alternative Factor," Commodore Barstow tells Kirk that the space surrounding Lazarus’ planet for a radius of 100 parsecs has been evacuated. If we interpret him literally, then he must have been more than 100 parsecs from the Enterprise during that conversation. In this case, the subspace signals must have traveled at a velocity of 3.4 billion times C, again allowing for a 3-second delay each way. However, we will assume the lower speed of525 million C is correct. If the subspace signals moved any slower than this speed, the probability of being close enough to a Starbase to confer with a Starfleet official would be so low as to preclude the possibility of it ever happening during the five year mission. Since Kirk has indeed spoken with Admirals face-to-face on several occasions, subspace signals must travel at a velocity of at least 525 million C, or perhaps considerably higher.

However, during "Balance of Terror," it is reported that a reply from Starfleet can be expected 3 hours after a dispatch is sent from the ship, near the Romulan Neutral Zone. We will assume that the ship always sends the messages as fast as they can get them to go—speed is always desirable when messages are involved. We will ignore the possibility that power restrictions would cause a compromise of this factor; it seems likely that even at Red Alert, enough energy to send a subspace dispatch at maximum possible velocity could be diverted for the short amount of time required to complete the task. Nothing has ever been said to lead us to believe otherwise. So, if the subspace signal traveled at 525 million C, then the Enterprise must have been about 90,000 lightyears from the nearest Starbase (or Earth). That’s equal to nine tenths of the diameter of our galaxy—and would probably put the Romulans outside the Milkyway!

In "The Enterprise Incident," it is stated that a message to Starfleet will take three weeks to arrive at its destination. But if a velocity of 525 million C is correct for subspace signals, then the Enterprise must have been 30 million light years away from Starfleet. That would put the Neutral Zone in some other galaxy!

In "Who Mourns for Adonis?", Kirk exclaims on Pollux IV that "this far out we may never get help." But at 525 million C, a subspace message would take only 2 seconds to reach Earth. A rescue party traveling at 500 C(and in Part I it was shown that the Enterprise travels much faster than that) would take only 25 days to get there. "Never" and "25 days from now" don’t seem equivalent, yet Kirk indicates that they are.

Thus there is a considerable amount of evidence which demands that subspace signals travel at velocities of 525 million C or much greater, and also an amount of evidence which would demand much lower speeds, as much as 30,000 times lower. In the instances at the Romulan Neutral Zone, signal travel speeds differed by a factor of 336. Something is definitely amiss here. But, again, we’ll find out just what a little later.

Let’s look again at the speeds of the ship. In part I, many velocities were calculated for the ship in different instances. Several of these are fairly exact. From "Bread and Circuses," we can calculate that a warp factor of between 2 and 5 corresponds to a velocity of about 110,000 C or greater. From "Obsession," warp 6 works out to 429,412 C. From "That Which Survives," warp 8.4 is calculated as 765,505 C. And, finally, from "By Any Other Name," warp 11 is equivalent to 6,567 C. As would be expected, a steady upswing in velocity is seen as the warp factors progress from 2 to 8. but at warp 11, where one would expect about 1 million C from the trend, a velocity of only 6,667 C is indicated. Somehow, the data from "By Any Other Name" breaks the pattern.

One may puzzle over this a great deal, until one realizes that the circumstances of the journey in that episode were very different than those of the other journeys. The figure is base on the statements made about their journey to the Andromeda galaxy—a journey which occurs outside of our galaxy. Thus there is a very basic difference about this calculation. Since all of the other figures refer to intragalactic journeys, and the one in question refers to an extragalactic journey, it is apparent that it is the fact that they were traveling outside the galaxy which affected their rate of speed.

This is the key to our problem. The nature of the space through which the ship is traveling affects the rate of speed, as compared to the warp factor. The effect of leaving the galaxy is extremely noticeable, but similar effects of much smaller magnitude must occur as the ship approaches or recedes from interstellar dust clouds, gravity sources, and other intragalactic phenomenon. Thus a given Warp factor is equivalent to different velocities at different points in the galaxy.

This, then explains the need for the vague term "warp factor."

Since the ship’s speed is constantly changing as external conditions vary, the crew needs some tangible point of reference. The warp factor, which must refer to some constant energy input into the space warp propelling the ship, provides such a point of reference.

This leaves considerable room for error by the writers of the show. They needn’t he worried about calculating velocities for the ship, as any discrepancy in velocity can always be written off as a local variance in the fabric of space, affecting the speed of the ship.

And by extending this concept to subspace radio, which is merely an outgrowth of the warp drive, one can explain the speed discrepancies discussed earlier. Subspace signals obviously accelerate/decelerate depending on the nature of the space through which they are traveling, causing great variation in the amount of time it takes to send a message and receive a reply.

And, finally, this idea greatly enhances the duties of the helmsman, navigator and communications officer. Since the speed of the ship and subspace signals can vary greatly due to local changes in various external parameters, these officers must do a tremendous amount of calculation and compensating, just to provide an ETA. This explains why ETAs must be provided for the captain—he has no time to bother with the complexities of the calculation.

Thus, the idea that local variations in the fabric of space cause various different velocities to be produced by the same energy input (from the warp drive or the subspace radio) solves many problems in the Star Trek universe, and adds a few new facets to it.

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