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“Space is big. Really big.” This is how The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins, a fictional, electronic travel manual in Douglas Adams’ book of the same name. Right up front, Adams wants everyone to understand – or at least to acknowledge – that space is very, very big. And to really drive this point home, he then adds “vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big”.
Like many people, I struggle to wrap my head around the sheer bigness of space. I know that our galaxy, the Milky Way, has an estimated visible diameter of 100,000-200,000 light-years. But even though I know this as a fact, it remains abstract. Luckily, Star Trek has on many occasions provided some much-needed context for those of us who find sci-fi more easily accessible than maths.
One of my favorite examples is Star Trek: Voyager. Specifically, the predicament of the entire crew, and the entire series, as presented in the very first episode.
An alien entity called ‘The Caretaker’ drags USS Voyager from the Alpha Quadrant, our local galactic neighborhood, to the Delta Quadrant, some 70,000 light-years away over on the other side of the galaxy.
Making the journey back to Federation territory isn’t as straightforward as going to high warp for a few hours. It’s an existential nightmare that will take the ship and its crew roughly 75 years to complete.
This is because even Starfleet, with its faster than light ships, must still obey the laws of physics (thank you, Mr. Scott) and cannot simply dash across a celestial superstructure like our home galaxy with just a hop and a skip. This is also why Star Trek never boldly goes to any other galaxies to seek out new life and new civilizations (well, not often anyway, and certainly not sensibly).
The Science of Star Trek is a series by tech writer and proud blueshirt Becca Caddy. Join us for the next installment on February 16.
Set a Course, Ensign
Whenever I get the urge to give myself a refreshing dose of cosmic terror, I visit the NASA website to take a look at exactly where both the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes are at this precise moment. Launched in 1977, these two probes gave humanity its first close-up look at our nearest neighbors in the solar system when they sent back photos of all the planets they passed on their travels.
Today, Voyager 1 is approximately 14 million miles away from Earth, whilst Voyager 2 is 12 million miles away. Both have now been traveling continuously at speeds of around 35,000mph for over 40 years. But neither has yet left our solar system.
According to NASA, Voyager 1 will likely reach the inner edge of the Oort cloud – the most distant region and outer boundary of our solar system – in 300 years’ time. It will then take between 14-28,000 years for it to come out on the other side. When you consider that our tiny solar system is one of roughly 100-200 billion other systems in our galaxy alone, the very notion of intergalactic travel becomes mind-achingly impossible to comprehend. We can’t even leave our own cosmic cul-de-sac yet.
Give Me Maximum Warp
Unlike the Voyager space probes in real-life, the imagined future of Trek shows humanity, and many other species, traveling far beyond our solar system at faster than light speeds using warp drive technology. Occasionally wormholes.
The top speed of USS Voyager is warp 9.975, which is roughly 2,000 times the speed of light. But, like any vehicle, it can only maintain top speed for a short while before the engine overheats and dental fillings start shaking loose.
Most of the time, then, Voyager is going to be running at the more manageable warp 6 for most of its 75-year trip, which is a mere 396 times the speed of light. And remember, the speed of light is roughly 186,000 miles per second.
For a more scientific understanding of how the different warp speeds on Trek stack up, I recommend taking a look at planetary scientist Dr. James O’Donoghue’s animation on YouTube. It visualizes how quickly Enterprise D would cross the solar system at different warps.
See also: Podcast | Robert Picardo and Brad Wright
Anyway, my point here is that even though ships on Star Trek can zip out of our solar system in just a few minutes, even at faster than light speeds it would take a lifetime to travel the distance between one side of our galaxy and the other.
It’s important to remember that warp speed isn’t always consistent in the Trek universe and also depends on the conditions. Some of the episode writers occasionally bent the rules to make certain storylines fit – known as the speed of plot.
But this of course begs the question: why were these limitations ever imposed in the first place? It’s fiction, after all, so why not make warp drive vastly hugely mind-bogglingly fast so our intrepid explorers could dash from one side of the Milky Way to another before jetting off to Andromeda all within a single episode? Well…
Starfleet Records Confirm
Whilst interstellar travel is just another day at the office in Trek, intergalactic travel is beyond the realm of Starfleet’s capabilities. But it does still happen.
The first instance occurs very early on in Star Trek’s broadcast history, in S2, Ep22 of The Original Series – ‘By Any Other Name’. Aliens from the Kelvan Empire in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy attempt to hijack Enterprise and take it back to their galaxy. Granted this isn’t about traveling out of the Milky Way, but encountering a race that traveled into ours raises the implied technological threat they represent.
Another example appears in S1, Ep6 of The Next Generation, ‘Where No One Has Gone Before’, when The Traveller uses the power of thought to transport USS Enterprise D to the Triangulum Galaxy – another of our closest galactic neighbors – before then making the leap to the very edge of the universe. Showing off much?
There’s also S2, Ep15 of Voyager, ‘Threshold’, a favorite episode of mine. Tom Paris manages to break the transwarp barrier in a shuttle powered by a new kind of dilithium. He reaches warp 10, finds himself occupying all space in the universe simultaneously, and spends the rest of the episode hyper-evolving.
Intergalactic episodes are few and far between. This is why any time a ship’s crew does somehow find itself beyond the limits of our galaxy or encounters a vastly superior alien race who’s made the trip into ours, it tends to stand out.
When USS Enterprise glimpses the edge of the universe, or when USS Voyager finds itself trapped in fluidic space, it sends the stakes through the roof – how are they going to get home? Are they stuck here forever now? All great television.
See also: Star Trek | The End Is the Beginning: Watching Picard with My Father by Angela Meyer
Now Within VIsual Range
If USS Voyager were able to comfortably hit warp 10 (without anyone turning into a lizard) and zip back to Earth in time for brunch tomorrow, the series simply wouldn’t have had the emotional drive that made it a compelling addition to the Star Trek canon.
You can see that, as the producers of Trek worked out how they were going to turn Next Generation’s success into worthy spin-offs, they needed series concepts that were ‘same but different’, somehow. This resulted in Deep Space Nine, a static exploration of a dynamic community and turbulent local politics, and Voyager, the long journey home against near-impossible odds.
These narrative foundations stretch back to the great stories of antiquity, Voyager, in particular, evoking the story of Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad. These kinds of stories are endlessly fascinating to us as they offer a mirror to our own struggles and provide us with heroic but relatable models for how we might overcome our own day-to-day challenges.
Just as there are massive audiences for sci-fi fantasy that offers pure escapism (in a galaxy far, far away….) there’s an equally strong appetite for sci-fi that feels as though it’s only a few steps removed from reality. For example, I’ve yet to meet a scientist who doesn’t love The Expanse – both the TV series and the books by James S. A. Corey.
Despite the tantalizing theoretical possibility of interstellar warp drives, coming up with an engine capable of propelling a craft out of our galaxy and into another one simply isn’t materializing on anyone’s whiteboard. The incomprehensible distances involved make it an impossibility.
This is why it remains an important limitation within the various worlds of Trek. The best sci-fi gives us a place where we can each imagine ‘what if?’. And these mental flights of fancy can inspire real-world breakthroughs, not in science (although this also happens) but in our everyday lives.
Hailing On All Frequencies
Space is our species’ ‘final frontier’ and, because it bears repeating, it is very, very, very big. Star Trek in its many iterations has become the most enduring space myth that we tell ourselves, providing us all with a constant source of inspiration and contemplation when it comes to our place in the cosmos.
By respecting the vastness of space, and imposing conceivable limitations on the technology that transports us from one star system to another, Star Trek ensures that it never fully breaks the tether of relatability. It reminds us that there will always be limitations, and even with faster than light travel we’d still be confined to visiting our nearest neighbors.
In this way, Trek subtly delivers a vitally important message. Whilst it allows us to dream of strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations, it reminds us that we are a long, long way away from anywhere else. And, to the best of our knowledge, the planet we live on is the only one we know of that has everything we need to be able to live. And this simple truth becomes more urgently important with each passing year.
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Becca has been writing about tech and science for more than ten years. Her first book, Screen Time, came out in January 2021 with Bonnier Books. She loves science fiction, brutalist architecture and spending way too much time floating through space in virtual reality.