I’ve written before how I love Star Trek above nearly all other sci-fi shows.  I’ve always loved the characters, the stories, but most of all I’ve loved the tech.  Part of it was that it never seemed too fantastic or out of reach.  It always made dreaming about a future in a spaceship that much easier.

There’s a good reason why much of the tech seemed grounded in modern day.  When Gene Roddenberry first pitched the idea of Star Trek he based a lot of the story as “just like things are now, only in the future”.  He named the ship after the world’s first nuclear power ship and even made it the same size.  Everything that was on the original Enterprise seemed like a natural progression from what we had in the 1960’s.

“You, too, can fly in any one of our armored death-traps!”

Fast forward to The Next Generation and the designers took many of the same design cues as The Original Series; much of the technology in TNG seemed like a simple progression from where we were in the late 80’s.

In my mind, however, there are some fundamental issues with how Starfleet ships are designed.  As cool as some of them are, it seems like many design elements are maintained simply as an homage to TOS . . . and that’s it.  Now, a lot of problems with Star Trek physics have been brought up before (so many there’s a Wikipedia page) but that’s not what I’m going to do here.  Instead, I’d like to break down to individual parts of the ship the Federation uses.  So, without further ado:

The Warp Core

Yeah, let’s go after the big one right off the bat!

OK, so the Warp Core acts as the central power plant for each ship by generating both power and plasma for the warp coils.  You can’t actually classify it as an engine, because the engines are actually the Impulse Engines on other areas of the ship (you can typically identify them as the rear-facing red spots).  Now, as a power plant it makes total sense that the core would be in the . . . well, core of the ship.  However, remember that this thing not only provides power to the ship, but also vents its only byproduct (plasma) to the warp coils to go faster-than-light.

What’s wrong with that?  Well, the problem is that the warp coils are what make up the nacelles (those long things at the top of the “arms”).  That means that you are purposely transporting this high temperature “death in a bottle” throughout half the ship’s length!  Remember that plasma isn’t some sort of exotic material; it’s a description of a physical state of matter.  Nearly anything can be turned to plasma and when it does, it burns through things.  This isn’t like your car transferring fuel to the engine in its fuel lines; this is like your car lighting all its gas on fire . . . and THEN pumping it through the gas lines!

While we’re on the subject of fuel, let’s talk about its location in the ship.  Deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) mixes with antimatter to create plasma and this starts everything listed above.  The logic behind the location of the antimatter (along the bottom of the hull) is that should something go wrong, you can eject the antimatter units out into space and away from the ship.

“Ensign, concentrate fire on that hatch labeled ‘Eject – Keep Clear’.”

In a ship that may find itself facing against hostile forces or, at the very least, be flying among environmental hazards, this is like packing your hull with TNT.  Sure, in the event something goes wrong you can quickly throw it out.  Unless, you know, what’s gone wrong is that someone shot at your hull where the explosives are located.  Just ask the HMS Hood.

How It Should Be Instead

Think of a modern jetliner.  The engines on the wings are just that; engines.  The engines aren’t somehow stored deep in the belly of the plane and venting their thrust out through the wings.  So, too, should be the design of the warp core.  Instead of having a main core that’s almost as far from the “drive units” (the nacelles) as possible, each nacelle should have it’s own dedicated warp engine.

Store the deuterium in the hull.  Store the anti-matter in some shielded part of the superstructure.  If something goes wrong, beam it off the ship.  Suddenly, we’ve taken away at least half of the dramatic ship explosions you’ve seen on the show and movies!


Up next, the pesky nacelles themselves!

About The Author

Co-founder of Stolendroids.com and Executive Producer for Stolendroids Podcast. Also resident 'tech-head' and de-facto leader of the group.

Related Posts

  • luxifer

    Your reasoning is flawed!
    1. the term “plasma” doesn’t say anything about temperature… it just means “at least partly ionized gas” and nothing more… also you even put it into your schematics: part of the plasma is distributed throughout the whole ship anyway… that’s the main power grid… so placing the warp core somewhere in the center of the ship makes sense actually…
    2. if you were to put a warp core into each nacelle, you’d have to bring anti-matter to it… now transporting THAT over distances should be far more dangerous than transporting even the hottest plasma
    3. AFAIK beaming anti-matter wasn’t possible

    so that leaves… erm… nothing exactly!?

    nevertheless: cool that someone even thinks about this stuff from this perspective 🙂

  • Luxifer,

    Thanks for your comments. Sorry if it took awhile to show, I have to manually approve some for whatever reason and I didn’t see yours till just now.

    You are partially right about plasma; technically it IS defined as a gas in which part of it is ionized. However, most commonly that ionization happens because of high amounts of heat or other energy being expended into it.

    While I promised not to get into the “treknology” part of it, since it’s based upon theory and/or whatever the writers wanted for an episode, I’m also basing this off of many references in the show (“plasma burns”, “plasma coolant conduit”, etc). Whether or not this was intended to tell us that the plasma created in the M/ARC is a “fiery ball of death” type is up to interpretation. However, no matter if it’s “fiery ball of death” or even the less dramatic “choke the life out of you” type . . . either way I would personally consider it to be “death in a bottle”.

    You bring up EXCELLENT points about antimatter containment! I’d like to address the power grid in my conclusion. As for the beaming, you wouldn’t actually be beaming the antimatter itself so much as its containment pod.

    It’s kinda like stealing things in Fallout 3: New Vegas; you can’t take the stuff directly, but if you put it in a bucket and take the bucket everything’s OK!

  • Its been a long time since this was posted, but I came across it and couldn’t resist commenting on so many errors.

    1. The first Nuclear powered ship was the USS Nautilus SSN-571 launched in 1954. The Enterprise CVN-65 was not launched until 1960.

    2. Plasma is formed by either the application of extreme heat, a strong electrical charge, intense pressure / physical shock, microwave or radio radiation, or by an intense magnetic field. Despite myths to the contrary plasma can be hot or cold. In Star Trek the more energetic “hot” plasma created by a M/AM annihilation (Produces all the above forms of creation) is sent to the Warp nacelles, while the cold plasma is used to power the rest of the ship. Because Plasma is simply a normal atom that has been either stripped of or gained an additional electron it has a positive or negative charge making it an extremely good conductor of electricity. Since anything that is electric is also magnetic its pretty easy to contain plasma in a magnetic field. That field dose not even need to be all that strong. And since magnets don’t need power to function, and because you can make composite materials containing iron, cobalt or nickle you can easily make “armor” that is magnetic. (Actually it would have to be polarized to deal with cosmic radiation) and if you ever looked at the Trek tech manual, that area of the hull is thickest and most heavily protected. (ever wonder why when you see wrecked starships floating in space burning with giant holes in the hulls, why it simply hasent been vapourized by an M/AM explosion?)

  • …. Continued

    3. An airplain may have its engines outside the main body of the aircraft, but where do you think the fuel is stored. I’ll give you a few hints; its the largest surface area on the plane, provides the lift that makes flight possible, and is usually only a few millimetres thick …. I think you just used the wrong analogy to get your point across, I’d rather have the fuel inside protected by a lot more than a thin sheet of aluminium.

    4. You can not “beam” antimatter. As its the opposite of matter it is in a constant state of flux, and therefore not the same from one instant to the next. If the transporter we have now was capable of beaming more than just a few atoms of a single material, the computing power and extreme memory requirements alone would render the process of an Emergency Beam Out moot as in that kind of situation you more than likely wouldn’t have a fully functional computer/the power required/the memory.

  • Thanks for the info on the USS Nautilus. I was not aware of that!

    As a correction, saying that anything electric is also magnetic is entirely false. My phone is electric, and I can’t stick it to my fridge. Electrical CURRENT induces a magnetic FIELD. I know it sounds like semantics, but it’s an important difference.

    Having a static magnet as the containment field would be an immensely bad idea, as it wouldn’t be adjustable. Though, now that you mention it, it might be a good failsafe to have!

    I believe I have been corrected about beaming out anti-matter on here by another commentor. I think. Maybe. But you’re right, you can’t beam it out. Not entirely for the reasons you say, however. Even normal matter is in a constant state of flux. Star Trek gets around this (known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) with a clever device called “the Heisenberg Compensator”. How does it work? Why it compensates for the HCP, of course! 😉 Instead, you can’t beam out anti-matter because there’s nothing really to beam out. Because it’s the opposite of normal matter, you can’t lock onto it. Besides, since beaming is another treknology, it doesn’t really count as a solution anyway. My bad.