The Science of Star Trek

Is There Any Real Science Behind the Science Fiction?

star trek transporter
A Star Trek-style transporter that teleported humans and matter from ship to planets and other locations. Image from a Star Trek exhibit, taken by Konrad Summers, CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Star Trek is one of the most popular science fiction series of all time. Future inhabitants of Earth take off on quests to the far reaches of the galaxy. Using advanced technologies like warp drive and artificial gravity, the occupants of the starship Enterprise explore strange new worlds. But is it all just science fiction, or is there some science fact in the mix?

Some of the technologies used in Star Trek (and other science fiction media) have varying levels of real science behind them.

In some cases, the science is quite sound and we either have the technology or could develop it sometime in the near future. Other technologies in the Star Trek universe are sometimes in agreement with our understanding of physics, but are highly improbable to ever exist for various reasons. Still others are more in the realm of imagination and (unless something changes in our understanding of physics) don't stand a chance of ever becoming a reality.

Let's look at each of these broad categories and see where the technologies fall.

What Exists Today or Will Sometime in the Near Future

  • Impulse Drive: The impulse drive is not unlike our chemical rockets of today, only more advanced. With advances taking place today, it is not unreasonable to think that we will one day have propulsion systems similar to the impulse drive on the starship Enterprise.
  • Cloaking Devices: The irony here, of course, is that this is a technology that humans have yet to grasp in the early Star Trek series (although the Klingon Empire has it). Yet this is one of the technologies that is closest to becoming a reality today. Of course, we are far from cloaking entire spacecraft from detection of any kind, but it is not unreasonable to think we will someday get there.
  • Communication Devices: No one goes anywhere without one. All members of Starfleet carried with them a device that allowed them to communicate with other members of the crew. This manifests itself today in the form of cell phones. 

Possible, but Highly Improbable

  • Time Travel: Time travel into the past or the future is not in strict violation of the laws of physics. However, the amount of energy needed to accomplish such a feat takes the practicality of it out of reach.
  • Wormholes: A wormhole is a theoretical construct of general relativity that, under certain circumstances can be created in places like black holes. The main problem is that passing through (or even approaching) a wormhole created by such objects would be potentially deadly. The alternative is to create a wormhole in a location of your choosing, but this would require the presence of exotic matter that isn't known to exist in large quantities and would require so much energy that it is not likely we could ever achieve it. So while wormholes may very well exist, it seems highly improbable that we would ever be able to travel through one.
  • Warp Drive: Like wormholes, warp drive does not violate any laws of physics. However, it too would require such immense amounts of energy and exotic matter that it seems improbable that developing such technology will ever be possible.
  • Energy Shields and Tractor Beams: These technologies are linchpins to the Star Trek series. We could someday have technologies that have a similar effect as those used in the films. However they will likely work in a much different manner.
  • Matter-antimatter Power: The starship Enterprise famously uses a matter-antimatter reaction chamber to create the energy used to power the ship. While the principle behind this power plant is sound, the problem is creating enough antimatter to make it practical. As of today it is extremely unlikely that we will ever obtain enough antimatter to justify making such a device.

    Most Likely Impossible

    • Artificial Gravity: Of course, we actually have artificial gravity technology in use today. For these applications we use rotating centrifuges to produce a similar effect to gravity, and such devices may make their way onto spacecraft of the future. However, this is quite different from what is used in Star Trek. There, an anti-gravitational field is somehow created on board the star ship. While this may be possible someday, our current understanding of physics is at a loss as to how this might actually work. This is mostly because we don't actually understand gravity that well. So it is possible that this technology might move up the list as our scientific understanding grows.
    • Instantaneous Matter Transport: "Beam me up Scotty!" It's one of the most famous lines in all of science fiction. And while it allows the plot of the Star Trek films to move a long at a more rapid pace, the science behind the technology is sketchy at best. It seems highly unlikely that such technology will ever exist.

      Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.