Star Trek and physics thing.

Once upon a time I was asked to beta-read a piece of Star Trek fanfiction. The first thing that caught my eye as a problem was that the author had a starship lifting off from a ground based port and going to warp drive shortly thereafter. By shortly I mean within the atmosphere.

I’m not a Trekker, and Lord knows I’m not a physicist, but it struck me that a starship is a big object and that causing it to get anywhere near, let alone exceed the speed of light would result in a whole lot of energy being dumped into the atmosphere.

What are the likely effects of a non-quantum (ie really big and dense) object hitting reltativistic speeds below near-earth orbit?

I think you are on the right track. It would make more sense for huge space ships to be made in and launched from space. I would have people take shuttles (or transporters) to get from planets to ships.


As with most fiction based around a particular “universe”, what’s more important is that you don’t violate the rules of that universe. Supra-light speed is allowed in Larry Niven’s and ST’s universes, therefore it’s ok. (But only if you pay attention to the specific rules). I believe that ST forbids warp in a gravity well, as it will cause the universe to collapse or something. Unfortunately this means you really need to ask some hardcore zealots, and wait for the flames to cool before you get an answer.
As for the question of near-light speed in an atmosphere, the object would heat up a whole lot from friction, and it’ll probably make a lot of noise from the vaccuum being filled in.
What would happen to everything else: I suppose it depends on how you accelerated that fast, and how heavy your ship is. :slight_smile:

For what it’s worth, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home a Klingon Bird of Prey goes to warp while still in 1986 Earth’s atmosphere. They then slingshotted around the sun to travel back to the 23rd Century and everything was still intact so it’s allowed by default, I guess.

I remember them cloaking, I don’t remember them going to warp in STIV while still in Earth’s atmosphere. Not sure though.

In Star Trek, you have to create a subspace field to go to warp. In TNG “Deja Q,” it says that a subspace field “[changes] the gravitational constant of the universe” for the region inside the subspace field. Presumably, this is something you would not want to do near a planet.

Int TNG “Force of Nature” it is established that warp drive actually damages the fabric of space itself. So, once again, you wouldn’t want to go to warp near a planet.

If it didn’t go to warp, it went to impulse speed. Even the much slower velocity of 1/4c would be enough to wreak havoc on our biosphere, right?

Yes it should, if they went to impulse in the atmosphere. Someone who actually has the movie will have to answer this. I’m not even sure if they show them recloaking. Now that I think about it, I think they just jump from the beaming up of the whales to them preparing for slingshot.

I have the movie and have watched it at least a dozen times but just to make sure, I just popped it in and fast forwarded to the scene in question… Sulu explicitly says “Aye, aye… warp speed” to Kirk after beaming up the whales and immediately thereafter, it shows the Bird of Prey streaking off with the warp effect while surrounded by clouds.

So it’s definitely acceptable within the Trek universe.

I know a fellow who was in Texas when the Columbia space shuttle broke up. He was 20 miles away but he said the noise was so loud that he thought they were having an earthquake.

Now that was a vessel going around 4500 MPH. A ship travelling at relativistic speeds would be going about 2600 times faster than that (about 11,000,000 MPH, say).

Bear in mind that air resistance increases as the square of the speed, and the power to overcome that resistance increases as the cube of the speed. So we’re talking some very big numbers, now.

I’ve run some wild-assed calculations and I’ve come to the conclusion that a space-ship travelling at relativistic speeds within the atmosphere would cause a shock wave that would blow the planet apart.

Hmm. I’ve looked at my figures again and I’d like to revise what I said. I don’t think it would “blow apart” the planet, but I do think it would instantly eradicate all life in the hemisphere. The rest of humanity would die a few minutes or hours later for various reasons (atmosphere loss, boiling oceans, earthquakes).

Hmmm… Better review your figures again, Tim. I think your warp speed is off by a factor of 60 or so.