How close are we to Star Trek technology?

Now before I start this article, I would like to formally remind all my friends that they like me despite my somewhat eclectic tastes, so deal with it!

To celebrate (yes celebrate!) the release of the new Star Trek film this may, I thought it would be fun to review some of the many technologies present on the show and try to assess how close we are to achieving Sci-Fi technology in the real world.

Many of the gadgets present on Star Trek are already common tools of our everyday lives. Touch-screens and tablets first pioneered on the series ships are now used all over the world, whether they are in the form of touch-screen phones or portable tablet PCs. The flip phone was also first featured in the series, although boasting a somewhat inconvenient size! More interestingly, the famous “phasers” will actually be available soon in the industry (without, obviously, the option to set to stun). Although laser guns for games and DIY are already on the market, the government is developing phasers with which we could actually burn holes in each other. Ouch!

Another fascinating invention of the show is Warp Drive, which is the propulsion system which the ships use to travel in space. It is based on the theory of creating an artificial bubble of normal space-time around the spacecraft. Outside this bubble, space-time would be warped allowing the ship to travel faster than light (FTL). This system is supposedly defined by the following equation:       s = c·w3

Where s is the speed, w the warp factor and c the speed of light (299,792,458 metres per second).

Using this equation, “Warp 1” would equal the speed of light and “Warp 3” would equal 27 times the speed of light. This would mean speeding through space at 891 times the speed of light when the crew push their craft to a deadly “Warp 9”! Now, I’m not suggesting we are anywhere near this kind of technology but a FTL propulsion system has been proposed recently using dark energy. Dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and tends to increase the rate of expansion of the universe. Cosmos magazine has recently published an article claiming they are near to achieving Warp Drive, supported by the calculations of several physicists. Although different models in the past have shown that it is in fact impossible to exceed the speed of light, it might be possible to warp space. NASA even sponsored speculative work on the subject from 1996 to 2002 and some scientists have hypothesized Warp Drive may be achieved around 2180.

I think it is safe to say that the most outlandish and exciting Star Trek invention is the Transporter. The idea is to convert a person/object into an energy pattern, beam it to a target and then reconvert it to matter. The closest we are getting to this involves Quantum Physics. Quantum physics is based on the theory that matter and energy have the properties of both particles and waves. This theory is now used to account for many different phenomena. The design of teleportation is based on a principle called quantum entanglement. This idea states that there is a possible property of the quantum mechanical state of, say a group of two objects, in which the states of each object are linked so that one can no longer exist without the other. Quantum teleportation could, in theory, transfer information from one object to another on a quantum level. Although this is still very far from beaming you onto a nearby planet, information has been teleported and recently, a team succeeded in teleporting data over 89 miles from the Canary Island of La Palma to Tenerife!

We are sadly still quite far from achieving the most exciting technologies from Star Trek but some are within our grasp. There has currently been work on developing the equivalent to the Holodeck. The Holodeck is a reality simulator in which characters from the show could escape to imaginary places, trains for battle or even upload novels to participate in some role play! This could be a very useful device for combat training and work is advancing towards this goal, particularly with the development of a “cybersphere”. But at the moment the closest we can come to living our own virtual reality is through a new game developed by EA called “Majestic” which literally follows you around and the use of video cameras with sense 3D information.

So while we wait for the days of teleportation and speed of light space-crafts, we might as well enjoy a little light entertainment from the cinematographic world! “Star Trek” is currently in cinemas nationwide.


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About me

Natacha is a research scientist and a lover of all things science! She love finding out interesting facts about all aspects of life, whether it’s how genetic engineering works or what the difference between crimped and straight hair is. There’s a bit of science behind every mystery and the Science Informant will help find the clues for everyone to enjoy and understand the amazing world of science!

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