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Transwarp Theories

Star Trek III

The word 'transwarp' has a long and muddled history in Star Trek. The first mention of the term came in Star Trek III : The Search For Spock. On arrival at Spacedock the crew of the Enterprise see the new USS Excelsior, ready for launch. The following dialogue ensues :

Sulu : "She's supposed to have transwarp drive."
Scotty : "Aye. And if my grandmother had wheels she'd be a wagon!"

Later in the film the Excelsior's Captain talks of breaking some of the Enterprise's speed records after the launch, and when he is ordered to give chase to the Enterprise he gives the order 'prepare for warp speed, stand by transwarp drive'. Clearly he expects to pursue Kirk and the Enterprise using transwarp. Fortunately Scotty has sabotaged the 'main transwarp computer drive' and the Excelsior is unable to pursue.

Subsequent to the film, much fandom material confidently predicted that transwarp had been a big success, and that future starships had been produced with this new drive. 'Mister Scott's Guide to the Enterprise', a reference book based around the Enterprise-A and similar in concept to the later technical manual for the Enterprise-D, claimed that Kirk's new ship had a transwarp drive.

Unfortunately, when the Next Generation aired in 1987 - one year after ST IV was made - the Enterprise-D was continually described as using warp drive rather than transwarp.

Undaunted, fans wondered if the word 'transwarp' had not simply been shortened to 'warp' in the hundred odd years between the film and the series. This argument made some sense - after all, the first Star Trek episode described the drive system as 'time warp', so the term was already an abbreviation. When 'Star Trek V : The Final Frontier' aired in 1988 the argument gained even more support - transwarp would have served nicely to explain the Enterprise's journey to the centre of the galaxy, a trip which should really have taken decades.

However, as TNG continued it became clear that the Federation had access to only a relatively small portion of the galaxy - only 19% of the galaxy had been charted according to 'The Dauphin'. So Kirk's trip to the core in a matter of hours was still not easy to explain. Moreover, the times and distances quoted in TNG frequently pointed to speeds only modestly above the warp factor cubed formula generally assumed for TOS.

The Next Generation

The clincher came in the sixth season episode 'Descent'. This described the Borg as having a massive advantage over Starfleet due to their use of transwarp, a technology the Federation did not have. All hope of incorporating a successful transwarp technology into the Federation by manipulating the terminology vanished with this episode.

The official explanation, as suggested in the Chronology, is that the Excelsior transwarp drive had been a failure. To accept this, we have to believe that the Federation constructed an entire functional Starship with a brand new drive system that had never been successfully tested, something that beggars belief.

But this is not the only problem. In 'Descent' the Enterprise followed a Borg ship into transwarp. The following dialogue takes place :

La Forge : "Our current theory is that the Borg have established several transwarp conduits through subspace. A ship when entering the conduit is immediately accelerated to an extremely high warp velocity, it's like falling into a fast moving river and being swept away by the current."
Picard : "How fast would a ship travel through one of these conduits?"
La Forge : "Well, we don't know. Normal subspace limitations don't apply to transwarp variables. But I'd say based on the distance we covered during our trip through the conduit the speed would have to be at least twenty times faster than our maximum warp."
Riker : "How do they open the conduits?"
La Forge : "The borg ship emitted some kind of high energy tachyon pulse just before we saw the subspace distortion. It seems as though the conduits are keyed to respond to tachyon transmissions of a specific frequency."

Later both a Federation shuttle and the Enterprise-D are able to open a transwarp conduit and travel through it. Geordi's 'twenty times our maximum warp' figure would give the conduit a speed of about 40,000 c. However, on this trip the ship covers 65 light years in a matter of eight to ten seconds, a speed of around 200,000,000 c. Pretty impressive stuff - at that speed a conduit could take you across the galaxy in under six hours!

So we now have a model of transwarp which is something like a railway - you build the tracks along a specific route, and they then allow high speed travel down that route and that route only. But if this is true, then how can the Excelsior ever have expected to pursue the Enterprise using its transwarp drive? All Kirk would have to do is turn to one side or the other, and he would be able to escape by leaving the conduit behind. Further, it was possible to travel down the conduit without any modification to the ship whatsoever - all that was required was the right frequency to open it up. So why did the Excelsior need a transwarp drive in the first place?

TNG offered two more interesting features on transwarp, but these are of more interest in the last section of this article regarding warp factors above 10.


As if TNG hadn't muddied the waters enough, Voyager then came along and showed us no less than three totally different forms of transwarp!

The first came in the second season episode 'Threshold'. Here it is stated in the most explicit possible terms that the crew of Voyager have modified a shuttle by adding a transwarp drive to it; that they hope to reach Warp factor 10; that the shuttle will reach infinite speed in doing this and hence occupy every point in the universe simultaneously; and that this was then indeed achieved not once but twice.

Some quotes to demonstrate these statements :

From the first scene in the episode :

Paris : "Acknowledged. Engaging transwarp drive in four... three... two... one... transwarp on line!"

From the scene in the mess hall :

Paris : "We're trying to break the maximum warp barrier."
Kim : "Nothing in the universe can go warp ten. It's a theoretical impossibility. In principle, if you were ever to reach warp ten you'd be travelling at infinite velocity."
Neelix : "Infinite velocity. Got it, so that means... very fast?"
Paris : "It means that you would occupy every point in the universe simultaneously. In theory you could go anyplace in the wink of an eye, time and distance would have no meaning."

From the following simulation, played at a briefing for Janeway :

Paris : "Warp 9.92... the pylons are secure, everything looks good. 9.97... 8... 9... warp ten!"
B'Elanna : "You've crossed the threshold. You've done it! And there's been no damage to the nacelles."
Janeway : "When you came to me a month ago and said you had a way to cross the transwarp threshold, I thought it was more of a fantasy than a theory. Congratulations to all of you."

From the actual real flight :

Paris : "Engaging transwarp drive in four, three, two, one... warp 9.7... 9.8... 9.9..."
Tuvok : "He is exceeding our maximum velocity. I am switching to long range sensors."
Paris : "Warp 9.95."
Tuvok : "He is approaching the threshold."
Paris : "Engine output at maximum. Velocity... warp ten."

Many fans really dislike this episode, including myself, and would like to pretend that it never happened. Indeed, some claim that the makers of Star Trek have declared this episode non-canon because in 'Dark Frontier', Paris says he has never flown at transwarp before. In fact this is not so - all Paris says in 'Dark Frontier' is that he has never flown in a transwarp conduit before, but the Threshold-type transwarp does not involve the use of conduits so there is no contradiction.

The second Voyager version of transwarp was that seen in the season three episode 'Distant Origin'. This episode features the Voth, a species descended from Earth's dinosaurs. The Voth travel in ships which are equipped with transwarp drive, but they are very different from any earlier type. The Voth ships do not appear to travel in a conduit, but rather look like a ship travelling at normal warp - a black sky with passing streaks, although the streaks are much larger and brighter than those we see at normal warp. The velocity is nothing like infinite; the timeline is generally uncertain but the ships take at least minutes if not hours or days to get from place to place, so Voth-type transwarp is emphatically not what Voyager developed in Threshold.

Thirdly, and most confusingly, we got Borg conduit-type transwarp. Although we had seen Borg transwarp conduits before in TNG's 'Descent', what we saw in Voyager was both different and self contradictory.

Firstly, the conduits look nothing alike. The Descent-type transwarp involves a cloudy bluish tunnel with a glowing light at the far end (actually a re-use of the effects from an anomaly seen in TNG's 'Time Squared'), while the conduit-type involves a greenish tunnel with a much more clearly defined boundary. Some quotes indicate that the conduit-type is far slower than the Descent-type; in 'Scorpion', we get the following dialogue :

Borg : "State your demands."
Janeway : "I want safe passage through your space. Once my ship is beyond Borg territory I'll give you our research."
Borg : "Unacceptable. Our space is vast. Your passage would require too much time. We need the technology now."

Later, in 'The Gift', we find that Borg space is 9,500 light years across at this point; at the speed of the Descent-type trip, this would take only twenty five minutes! It's not clear just how much time the Borg would consider too much, but certainly it should be matter of a day or two at least, and perhaps a month at most.

In 'Day of Honor' Voyager is hoping to use Borg transwarp conduits to speed their trip home. Seven of Nine attempts to assist in opening a conduit using the navigational deflector. The attempt is unsuccessful, but this does reflect the Descent-version of events where any ship can use a conduit so long as it is able to generate a suitable access signal.

But then in 'Dark Frontier' it is established that ships need a transwarp coil to enter and travel a transwarp conduit. This flies in the face of both 'Day of Honor' and 'Descent'. Even more strangely, the same episode establishes that a ship can alter course at will once within a conduit, rather than being fixed to a predetermined path. This indicates that the conduit is being created by the ship as it goes, rather than being fixed in place like railway tracks.

In Voyager's 'Child's Play', we go back to conduits which are fixed in place - one which passes near to Icheb's home planet has led to Borg attacks on the planet periodically over the last decade, indicating that it had been in place at least that long.

All this is as confusing as hell at first glance, but in fact all of it points to one of two models for transwarp. In the first conduits are fixed in place, very fast, and anybody can use them. In the second conduits are not fixed in place, are much slower (though still much faster than standard warp drive), and you need a transwarp coil to use them.

In order to reconcile these two models we can simply assume that a ship has to have a transwarp coil in order to create a conduit, but that once a conduit is created it remains in place for some time afterwards. During this time any ship with the proper access codes and frequencies can access the conduit and travel along it. Hence the ship seen in Descent would have had a coil, and used it to create the conduits mentioned in the episode, yet the Enterprise-D could then access these conduits and travel down them without a conduit.

Since the ship using the coil is creating a conduit as it goes, then this vessel can take any course it wishes. Yet once a conduit is laid down its path does not change, so vessels which travel conduits without a coil are stuck with following the trail others have laid. This explains how the conduits in Descent and 'Child's Play' were fixed in place, while the transwarp coil equipped Delta Flyer could change course in 'Dark Frontier'.

Finally, we have the speed discrepancy to explain. Why did the Borg think it would take so long to cross their space in 'Scorpion'? We can explain this by saying that laying down a new conduit is a much slower process than simply travelling down a pre-existing one, in much the same way that laying down a new road is a much slower process than just driving along a pre-existing one. If there was no existing conduit in that particular part of Borg space then the cube accompanying Voyager would have to create a new one, which would be much slower than just zipping along an existing one like the E-D did in 'Descent'.

So the Excelsior would be able to follow the Enterprise in 'Star Trek III', matching course changes because it had a transwarp coil. Janeway can change course in 'Dark Frontier' since the Flyer also had a coil, but the Enterprise-D still cannot do anything but follow the conduit in 'Descent' and the conduit which passes Icheb's planet is a constant source of danger in 'Child's Play'.

Then we come to 'Endgame'. In this episode the intrepid ship discovers a 'transwarp hub', which you can see images of here. The hub is a large glowing sphere which has a surface partially covered in apertures. These link to transwarp conduits which form a network throughout the galaxy. We're told this allows the Borg to travel across the galaxy in a matter of minutes, indicating a speed of over a billion times that of light!

The hub actually fits into the above theory rather neatly. We've already assumed that conduits tend to degrade some time after they are laid down by a transwarp coil. The Borg could avoid this by sending ships down the conduits every now and again in order to use their coils to repair them, much as we send people out to repair roads. But it would be much more efficient if there was some way of maintaining a whole load of conduits from one central place, and this is a role that the hub seems a perfect candidate for.

We can now fit all of the varied speeds of Borg conduits into the theory. Scorpion indicates that the process of laying down a new conduit is slow enough that crossing a 9,500 light year distance would take something between a few days to a month or so, giving a speed of somewhere between 100,000 and 1,500,000 c.

Once a conduit is laid down, the speed at which a ship can travel through it seems to vary considerably, presumably as a result of how long it has been decaying. The Descent conduits were presumably no more than a few days or weeks old, and the speed of travel was on the order of 200,000,000 c.

Presumably the conduits maintained by the hub would constantly be in the maximum possible state of repair, and so would offer the maximum feasible speed using this technology. The travel times and distances given are somewhat vague, but we are told that the Borg can use the hub to reach any part of the galaxy in a matter of minutes. To be reasonably conservative this would mean crossing distances of some 80,000 light years in a time of around half an hour, giving a speed of about 1,400,000,000 c.

To summarize, then :

Excelsior expected to follow Kirk's course changesIt had coils, so could change course (Alternatively, it used Voth-style transwarp)

TNG : Descent
Enterprise can travel conduits without transwarp coils
Enterprise speed approximately 200,000,000 c
Enterprise could travel fixed pre-existing path only.
Conduits had already been laid down by a ship using a coil.
Conduits were relatively new, and so very fast.
Enterprise could not change course without a coil.

VOY : Threshold
Warp 10 is infinite speed, achieved with transwarp drive.
No apparent use of conduits.
This method of transwarp is apparently different to all others.

VOY : Distant Origin
Speeds less than infinite using transwarp drive.
No apparent use of conduits,
This method of transwarp is apparently different to Borg transwarp.

VOY : Scorpion
Speeds low enough that crossing 9,500 light years was considered to take a long time.No conduits available; laying down a new one would take too long.

VOY : Day of Honor
Conduits can be opened and used without use of a transwarp coil.If these have already been laid down by a ship with a coil, as in 'Descent’.

VOY : Dark Frontier
Flyer used transwarp coil to travel conduits and could change course whilst inside.Because it was making new ones using the coil.

VOY : Child's Play
Conduits are fixed features.Because they last for weeks/months after being made by a coil-equipped ship.

VOY : Endgame
A transwarp hub connects to many conduits.
Speed of travel along these is 1,000,000,000 c or more.
Hub prevents conduits from degrading, so speed is very high.

It's worth noting here that Seven of Nine has detailed information on how Borg transwarp drives work, and that Voyager's engineering crew has had practical experience of actually operating a transwarp coil in two different vessels - the Delta Flyer and Voyager herself. Now that Voyager has returned home, the Federation has access to all of this knowledge. So all that stands between the Federation and a practical transwarp drive system is their ability to actually manufacture the coils - and Seven of Nine likely also has detailed knowledge of how this is done. It's thus entirely possible that Voyager's early return will allow the Federation to develop transwarp within a year or two, rather than decades.

Whither Warp 11?

One of the great issues concerning transwarp drive is that of warp factors above warp 10. While we've never heard warp factors of any kind used in regards to Borg conduits, we have heard this terminology applied to other forms of transwarp.

The Star Trek : The next Generation Technical Manual features some description of warp drive, and gives us a graph which looks like the one below. The graph in the TNG TM differs slightly from this one; first, the 'power usage' axis is labelled as 'Megajoules per Cochrane' on the TNG TM graph. Since you need a constant supply of energy to the drive to keep a ship moving at warp, I and most tech-minded fans have changed this to 'Megawatts per Cochrane'. The difference is minor so far as this article is concerned, for I am only interested here in the overall shape of the curves rather than the power/energy figures themselves..

inline image
Warp speed

Other sources give further data points - the Encyclopedia has a chart showing the speed of different warp factors, including warp 9.9999 which is about 200,000 c. The official figures therefore agree with Voyager's 'Threshold' that warp 10 is infinite speed, since the speed curve climbs ever more steeply until it becomes vertical as it reaches Warp 10. The power curve shows a series of spikes at each integer warp factor, with the relative height of each spike falling as the warp factor rises. The power curve also rises to infinity as it reaches warp 10.

Yet there are two TNG episodes that have interesting titbits regarding warp factors above 10.

The first comes from the early episode 'Where No One Has Gone Before'. In this, an alien known as the Traveller came on board the Enterprise-D to assist in modifying the ship's engines to improve performance slightly. As a result of his being distracted during an initial test run, the ship suddenly accelerated out of control. We saw an extreme version of the effect we see when a ship jumps to warp speed, followed by Geordi on the bridge declaring 'We are passing warp 10!' It later transpires that the ship crossed millions of light years in a trip of under a minute in duration.

Secondly, and most controversially, the episode 'All Good Things' depicted a version of the future created by Q in which vessels were able routinely to travel at 'warp 13'. On the one hand this was not a real future, so we need not include it in any solution. But on the other hand, Q would presumably want to create a future which was convincingly realistic for Picard. So the All Good Things-type should ideally at least fall within the bounds of theoretical possibility for propulsion systems.

So how are we to explain this? Obviously you cannot have speeds faster than infinite - it's a contradiction in terms. Yet clearly there are references to warp factors greater than the warp 10 infinite speed barrier.

Extra Peaks Theory

There are two basic approaches to this problem. The first, which I call the extra peaks theory, goes like this : in TOS, engineers created a warp scale which just declared a warp factor for each speed such that the velocity in multiples of light speed equalled the warp factor cubed. The engineers failed to notice the peaks in energy expenditure which occurred as the ship got faster and faster.

When the engineers did notice the power peaks, they created a new scale - the TNG scale - which fixed each peak as a warp factor. They found only nine peaks, so these became warp factor 1 through 9; no matter how fast they pushed a ship or probe, it never hit a tenth peak. Hence they projected that there was no tenth peak, and so placed warp 10 as infinite speed which would be achieved at infinite power consumption.

Note that this would mean that warp 10 would not be a 'barrier' as such, any more than travelling at infinite speed is a barrier on any velocity scale. Warp 10 would simply represent the Federation's confidence that there were no more peaks to find.

The 'All Good Things' reference is then be included by a third change to the scale; the argument goes that future research and/or technological advances revealed extra peaks between warp 9 and warp 10 after all, so that in 'All Good Things' there would be at least 13 peaks on the power curve, followed by a warp 14 in place of the TNG warp 10.

The trouble with the extra peaks theory is that it cannot be made to fit the episodes, specifically the 'Where No One Has Gone Before' quote by Geordi, in which he proclaims the ship is passing warp 10. It's ludicrous to suggest that Geordi noticed the extra peaks as the ship accelerated, invented a recalibrated scale on the spot, and then talked to Picard about it without bothering to reveal what he had done. So to fit this quote in with the extra peaks theory we have to assume that Geordi was lying, stupid or reading faulty instruments. Or, we have to assume that the the extra peaks theory is invalid.

Personally, I also find the whole idea of Federation engineers making warp 10 equal to infinite speed and power just because they couldn't get a ship fast enough to find another peak a rather silly one. Surely it would have been more sensible to leave the far end of the scale open than to pick a solution which means re-drawing the scale every time you find a new peak?

Trans-Barrier Theory

The solution to our problem is obvious when you realize that there is no real contradiction between the idea of warp 10 being infinite and factors above warp 10 still existing. There are plenty of examples of real life mathematical functions which tend to infinity at a given point, then become finite again. In fact, there are a infinite number of such functions. One is the tan function; the tan of an angle gets larger and larger as the angle approaches 90 degrees, becoming infinite at that angle. But this doesn't mean that the tangent of 91 degrees is more than infinity! As shown below, it mirrors the curve to that point.

inline image

So there's absolutely no reason why the warp speed and power curve cannot tend up towards infinity at warp 10, then become non-infinite again afterwards.

We still need to keep the idea that the scale changed between TNG and TOS, but I would put this change at the development of the Excelsior project. If the Federation had gained their new understanding of warp theory some time in the 2270s or 80s and discovered the existence of the warp barrier at this point, then this would explain why they were able to begin development of the Excelsior project at this point. Certainly the Bird of Prey which Kirk stole from the Klingons appeared to be using the TNG warp scale, if the warp factors that Sulu called off during 'Star Trek IV' are any indication.

In essence, this idea mirrors the lightspeed barrier which exists in real world physics. One of the many problems with trying to go at the speed of light is that as you approach it your mass increases sharply, so it takes more energy to further increase your velocity. At the speed of light your mass becomes infinite, so it requires infinite energy to reach this speed. According to the TNG TM ships are able to 'jump' this barrier, going from a speed below light to a speed above light in a time so small that it never actually sits at the speed of light itself.

Similarly the Excelsior, like most transwarp drives, would have been designed to approach warp 10 and then 'jump' the barrier to a warp factor above 10 without ever actually sitting at infinite speed. We still have to assume that the attempt was a failure, since the Federation has no transwarp drive in TNG, but we have a better explanation of how the Excelsiors remained in service without any apparent modification to their propulsion systems. After all, warp 7 or 8 was considered to be fast in TOS times, so a ship which could significantly better this would still represent an advance even if it was unable to jump the barrier.

The 'Where No One Has Gone Before' reference can then be incorporated without any modification. Geordi would have correctly read that the Enterprise-D was passing warp 10, i.e. jumping the barrier into the transwarp realm. We can also include the All Good Things warp 13 references without modification by assuming that the Federation solved the transwarp barrier jumping problem in Q's future - something Picard would be able to accept as an expected advance for the Federation in the next few decades.

The transwarp built by Voyager's crew in 'Threshold' now becomes a rather unique application of the technology, but still fits in with the theory perfectly. Instead of jumping the barrier to reach fast but finite speeds, the shuttle actually sat at warp 10 to achieve infinite speed itself. It's fairly safe to say that the shuttle did not have to generate infinite energy to do this, so we would have to assume that the crew had found some way to achieve infinite speed without infinite energy. They did say they had discovered a special form of crystal to use in the engine, so perhaps the solution lies in this material. Or perhaps the TNG TM is incorrect in claiming that infinite energy was ever required to achieve warp 10 in the first place.

The other types of transwarp we've seen simply become variations on the theme; Voth-type transwarp could operate in a manner similar to the Excelsior, or might be something completely different, while the Borg transwarp conduit would represent a method of jumping or circumventing the warp 10 barrier and entering the transwarp realm to achieve high but finite speeds.

One final thing to explain is why anybody would ever bother to go at warp 13 when they could do the exact same speed by travelling at warp 9.999 (or whatever). The most obvious answer is one of efficiency; if we assume that transwarp travel is inherently more efficient than warp engines, then a ship of a given power output would always be able to go faster by using transwarp than by using warp. Or alternatively, it would be able to do the same speed for lower power consumption.

As to what the graph would look like beyond warp 10, nobody can be sure. I tend to think it would mirror the kinds of patterns we see on the warp speed and power graph, building up to another barrier at warp 20, but that is pure speculation on my part.

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Canon source Backstage source Novel source DITL speculation

© Graham & Ian Kennedy Page views : 68,128 Last updated : 23 Aug 2021