Space Is Big (a brief digression about warp drives and similar fictional constructs)

This post began as a 250-word digression in the middle of one of my reviews of a classic Trek episode.

I’ve come to understand how my brain works over the years. It is easily distracted by things it associates with other things. Sometimes I can ignore this free association—this tangential thinking—if I am sufficiently caffeinated and focused enough. Other times, a digression from what I should be writing seems more interesting to me, more fun, and I decide to follow that thought to see where it leads.

As in that old Robert Frost poem, that sometimes makes all the difference. Other times, it leads to dead ends and perilous cul-de-sacs.

This particular digression began as a contemplation of the vast distances in space and the fictional warp drive of the Trek universe. In the episode I was reviewing, it was established that a Klingon outpost was located only one parsec from a Federation deep space station, a distance Ensign Chekov declared was “close enough to smell them.”

A parsec is defined as about 3.26 light years, or the distance that light can travel in about 39 months. To put that into perspective, the distance from the Earth to Sol, our particular star, is—on average—about 93 million miles. Our orbit is elliptical, so the distance varies, of course. For instance, today we are 94.48 million miles from the sun (just a smidge above 1 AU). That’s a long way, but is only 0.000158 light years away. If you’re a math nerd as I am, you realize that a parsec is over 20,000 times that distance.

In my neck of the woods, that qualifies as a right far piece.

Chekov claiming that this distance is close enough to smell the Klingons was intended to demonstrate that these astronomical distances no longer present a major obstacle to space travel since warp drive technology made faster-than-light travel possible.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams worked around this mind-boggling distance problem by equipping his spaceship, the Heart of Gold, with an Infinite Improbability Drive. As soon as the drive reaches infinite improbability, it passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe simultaneously.

Yes, this is ridiculous and implausible. But, honestly, no more implausible than hyperspace, warp drive or other FTL space engines. The truth remains that while the term lightspeed continues to be synonymous with “extremely fast,” it is pitiably slow when it comes to cosmic distances.

Here, in the real world, the record for fastest spacecraft is currrently held by the twin Helios probes in orbit around the Sun, reaching top speeds of around 150,000 mph. The speed of light is around 671,000,000 mph. Again, math nerds, this is more than 4473 times our current record. In terms of c, which represents the speed of light as a constant, the Helios probes reached a top speed of about 0.00224 c.

In Star Trek: TOS terms, at our current record speed, “close enough to smell” would take well over 14,000 years to traverse (check my math: you know you want to). Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our solar sytem (other than Sol, of course), is 4.24 light-years away. In more mind-boggling numbers, that’s 24,925,371,582,298.5 miles. At current top speeds, that’s 19,000 years away.

Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has to be ignored when equipping your fictional spacecraft with faster-than-light stardrives. According to Einstein, as an object approaches the speed of light it acheives infinite mass which, in turn, would require an infinite amount of fuel to move it. The speed of light—c—is a constant and represents a true universal speed limit. It is highly unlikely that anything could ever travel faster than light. In fact, it seems unlikely that anything could even approach the speed of light without being destroyed itself.

You can offer up theories debating this fact, or proposing workarounds to Relativity. Just keep in mind that Einstein was smarter than we are.

Star Trek did what most science-fiction does. It introduced a fictional construct to make interstellar travel seem more feasible. Such literary devices have been used since at least the 1940s. In Trek, it’s the warp drive. In Star Wars, it’s the hyperdrive. In Hitchhiker’s, it’s the Infinite Improbability Drive. In your own fiction, you’ll have to come up with your own science-fantasy mechanism of going really fast.

Some creative alternatives, somewhat based upon actual theoretical physics, includes the concept of wormhole travel. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it’s an actual wormhole linking DS9 to another quadrant of the Milky Way. Stargate has stargates, naturally. Mass Effect has mass relays. The Expanse began with a more conventional type of stardrive but introduced The Ring when it branched out from our solar system.

It doesn’t really matter what fictional mode of transportation is used in your fictional universe. What matters to true nerds out there (raise your hands: don’t be embarassed) is that the mode is consistent. Fiction must follow the internal rules it establishes.

Early Star Trek did this inconsistently. Eventually, the original warp scale was finally settled, the accepted formula basically represented as w3c, with w representing the warp factor and c the speed of light. This was true for TOS only, as the warp scale was altered slightly beginning with TNG. Using this formula Warp 1 would be travelling at the speed of light. Warp 10 would be 1000 times the speed of light (10-to-the-third-power). Unless I’m remembering this incorrectly, I believe in TNG days, Warp 10 represented an unattainable infinite speed. Anyway, Warp 10 is very, very fast.

Until you consider the size of the universe. The distance from Earth to the center of our own galaxy is approximately 26,000 light-years. At TOS Warp 10, if I’ve done the math correctly, we’d make it to the center of the galaxy in about 26 years. The Milky Way itself is approximately 100,000 light-years across.

When you consider these truly astronomical distances, it begins to boggle the mind. It also sheds additional light on Star Trek: Voyager. Captain Janeway and crew were said to be about 70,000 light years from Earth when they were teleported into the Delta Quadrant. They were 75 years away at the beginning of the series. Because math is a component of my particular pathology, that’s 2.56 light years per day. That’s equivalent to a little over Warp Factor 9.8 using the old TOS scale (although less than Warp 8 by the TNG era).

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention other forms of fictional constructs used for interstellar travel. The Alien franchise (and the video game Mass Effect: Andromeda), among others, uses the concept of cryosleep, in which travellers are placed in suspended animation while their ships cross the vast distances of space. There is also the concept of the generation ship, in which many generations of people would live and die as the spaceship moved through space.

I’m sure you could offer other imaginative examples.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what mechanism you use, even magic or technology sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. If you’re writing a space adventure in which characters routinely travel between galaxies and solar systems, you’ll need some sort of technobabble-laced explanation. It’s okay. Lovers of speculative fiction are more than willing to suspend their disbelief.

But, getting back to the original plot point that inspired this digression, the Klingon outpost was one parsec away from the deep space station. At Warp 1, it would have taken the USS Enterprise a little over 39 months to travel that distance. At Warp 10, one day, four hours and a little over 33 minutes. Scotty would balk at running the warp drive that hot for that long, however.

Thank you for allowing me this brief digression.


10 thoughts on “Space Is Big (a brief digression about warp drives and similar fictional constructs)

  1. Warp Drives are the closest thing to being something that *might* actually be possible.

    But my understanding is that even if all the very theoretical ideas in the concept where true, you’d still need like the entire mass-energy of a star to get up to equivalent of Warp 2 or 3, which, as you describe, is not really all that fast on a galactic scale.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had read the Popular Mechanics article before and it tickled my nerd bone. Even in Trek, how warp travel is described seems plausible to my unscientific ears. Still, I believe it to be more fictional than even theoretical. Of course, with Warp 2 or 3 we certainly could expand the size of our backyard, couldn’t we?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve read speculation that the Alcubierre drive might have the drawback of destroying whatever location it was going to on arrival. Another issue it brings up is, if it’s possible, why don’t we see signs of other advanced civilizations using it?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a storyline in Star Wars: Rebels that for once sort of realistically addressed the whole “space is big” thing. Darth Maul is trying to locate Obi-Wan Kenobi to gain revenge on him, and using a stolen Jedi holocron learns he’s on a planet with “twin suns.” Maul realizes that Kenobi must be on Tatooine, since he’s been there before. All of the main character in Rebels, however, have never heard of Tatooine, much less been to it, and knowing that Maul is going to a planet with “twin suns” is practically useless information to them because there’s a whole bunch of worlds throughout the galaxy located in solar systems with two stars, and they have no way to narrow it down.

    Flash forward nine episodes (and several months) later, and Maul is on Tatooinie… and he still has no damn clue where Kenobi is. Maul’s been wandering the desert planet searching for him without any success, because it’s a big planet, and without an exact address Maul is completely lost. Maul realizes that unless he can find a way to lure Kenobi to him then he’s probably never going to find him.

    I think this was one of those very rare occurrences in sci-fi where they actually acknowledge that a single planet can be vast, and space itself is infinite.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly that one. I didn’t like it at all… First of all, a lost ship far away from home finds the way to reach a theoretical impossibility. Then, I don’t get why being everywhere at the same time should transform you in a superior being. And the superior being is a sort of immobile fish? Anyway, I look forward to listening to the Delta Flyers podcast episode dedicated to Threshold (it’s a podcast made by Garrett Wong and Robert Duncan McNeill)! :–)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I always looked at it as an homage to Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive. Seems like unlikely things, such as bowls of flowers and sperm whales, showed up when it was in use. This happened to be the only Voyager episode I saw before I began watching the entire series years later. But, yes, it was stupid. Thanks for telling me about the podcast. I will check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

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