Star Trek, specifically The Next Generation, is one of my favourite science fiction shows. It has the right amount of antiquity to induce feelings of nostalgia, without feeling horribly dated for modern times. A large factor behind my bias for this series is the technical manual that my dad owned. The manual does its best to explain all of the functions of the iconic Enterprise and, while Star Trek isn’t exactly known for its accuracy, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were many real-world similarities. Therefore, I argue that Star Trek has one of the best depictions of faster-than-light spaceships in popular fiction.
Factors of Star Trek Ships
There are 2 key factors that make the Star Trek ships both memorable and remarkably close to reality; the reactor, and the warp engine. The Enterprise-D from the Next Generation employs a matter/anti-matter reactor, meaning that it combines matter and antimatter in an explosive reaction. The energy output of this reaction is used to power the cast’s numerous adventures. This becomes an issue as the ship nearly obliterates itself every couple of episodes due to the fact that antimatter can react with any matter, which includes the ship. It might seem like the obvious choice is to use something relatively safer, for example, nuclear reactors. Yet, for a ship that needs to propel itself faster than light, anti-matter may be the only way to go.
Minute Physics has a great video explaining the efficiency of different kinds of reactions. In summary, while chemical or nuclear reactions can net a measly 0.1% mass-to-energy yield, matter/antimatter reactions will cause 100% of the mass in both the matter and antimatter to become energy. This kind of efficiency lets a ship free up a massive pool of energy for immediate use. A solid design choice for both convenience and combat.
Reality’s take on Star Trek’s “Warp Drive”
The second factor that makes a Star Trek ship is the warp engines. The massive cylindrical or oblong nacelles, the terminology like Warp Fields and Warp Factor, and the way it flies away in a flash of light. It seems like this is where the similarities to reality stop, however, a physicist named Miguel Alcubierre used Einstein’s field equations to create a mathematical proof for a faster-than-light vessel. This hypothetical engine was named the Alcubierre Drive and it could hypothetically accelerate a ship to ludicrous speeds.
To break down how the drive achieves such a feat, imagine that space is a large pool and the spaceships are paddleboards. Modern rocket engines create a downward thrust to move through space, much like how someone on a paddleboard manually paddles through the water. The faster they paddle, the more drag the board creates, stopping them from going faster. A ship with the Alcubierre Drive works by bending the space around it to move the ship. This would be like having a wave that pushed the paddleboard instead. The paddleboard in the wave wouldn’t need to fight against drag since the wave is moving the water itself to propel it further. Scientists that describe this kind of engine use the same exact words that science fiction writers have used for decades. Even Nasa engineers have conducted studies, calling their mock render of the ship the IXS Enterprise, in honour of Star Trek’s own Enterprise.
Fiction versus Reality
There are still many hurdles before modern technology can produce anything close to even the most accurate models of faster-than-light craft. Yet, shows like Star Trek, are able to reflect how vessels in the future might look like. Not in the way the art designers had stylized for the show, but in how they share their mechanics, functions, and vocabulary, making them great representations for how spacecraft could be developed today. Star Trek is in no means an accurate representation of real-world science, and it is probably better than the show has a few inaccuracies. It’s more fun to have dramatic adventures with aliens in space than to be stuck on earth.