Space operas would be pretty boring without some way to go very far, very fast. Traveling at 40,000 miles per hour—the speed at which Voyager is zipping along—it would take around 17,000 years for the Vulcans to fly to Earth and make first contact. Chances are, by the time they got here we would have already bombed ourselves to extinction and been replaced by evolved apes. Nobody would pay to see a movie like that. To keep things interesting, here are a few fictional ways to go very fast in science fiction.
1. FTL Drive
Photo courtesy BattlestarProps.com.
Mr. Gaeta was probably the busiest man on the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica. In addition to his other duties, he was responsible for spinning up the ship’s FTL (Faster Than Light) drive and plotting jumps. While newer (and more annihilated) battlestars had computer networks to make sure the Galactica didn’t emerge from FTL in the middle of a moon, Gaeta had a protractor and grease pen.
FTL is perhaps a misnomer, or at least, misdirection. The ship never moves faster than light. Rather, it folds space and creates an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. (Rosen here being Nathan Rosen, Einstein’s colleague and proto-“other guy,” paving the way for such OGs as José Carreras, Michael Collins, and Joey Bishop.) This is better known as a wormhole, and sends the ship to some other point in space. The upshot is that the Galactica could move slower than a Chevy Nova and still travel faster than light. This also creates a few interesting problems and opportunities. FTL-capable ships such as Raptors can emerge inside planetary atmospheres for tactical missions, but can also emerge inside of planets, for very bad days. (A tip of the hat to Tough Guy and Carousel of Raptor 612, lost during the final search and rescue operation on Caprica.) Likewise, spinning up an FTL drive close to or inside of another ship can cause severe trauma to that ship’s hull, a likely result of the distortion of space itself.
One other point worth mentioning: Traveling great distances with FTL drives requires multiple jumps. There’s no “Lay in a course for Earth. Engage!” but rather, hundreds if not thousands of short, perilous jumps. (Cylon FTL drives are far more efficient, but even they have an upper limit.)
2. Warp Drive
Photo courtesy Memory Alpha
Your basic Starfleet warp drive is technically known as a Gravimetric Field Displacement Manifold, and is powered by matter/antimatter reactions. (But not by dilithium crystals, which serve only to focus said reactions into a flow of electro-plasma. The reactions themselves are fueled by deuterium. Everybody got that?) It works something like this: The warp drive generates a subspace field around the ship, distorting space-time itself and moving the ship very, very fast. Just how fast is measured by Warp Factors, with Warp 1 being the speed of light, and Warp 10 being impossible and infinite, I don’t care what that one atrocious episode of Star Trek Voyager said. (Note that in various episodes in various series, there is the occasional “Warp 15!” thrown around. That’s merely an adjustment of scale. It’s just easier to say “Warp 15” than to say, “Warp 9.9999999999999923. Engage!”)
Zefram Cochrane invented the human variant of the warp drive in 2063, which weirdly enough means that high school students today will be around for it and for first contact with the Vulcans, which happens immediately after warp speed is achieved.
Safety measure: In the event of a warp core breach, which is very bad, a starship can save itself by ejecting its core, except that one time in Star Trek: Generations when Geordi forgot about that.
3. Akwende Drive
Photo courtesy Wing Commander News.
The Terran Confederation Navy uses jump drives to move ships from one jump point to another over jump lines. (Each jump point is marked by a jump buoy.) For that one guy reading this who’s not an expert in Wing Commander physics, here’s what that means: Jump lines (sometimes called jump tunnels) are rare paths in space that are created by the gravity wells of celestial objects. For our purposes, think of them as interstellar jet streams. Each jump line’s point of entry in space is called a jump point. Space colonists mark jump points with jump buoys to help navigation systems lock onto locations with precision. Jump lines are sometimes bidirectional, but just as often not.
Special propulsion systems were developed to take advantage of jump lines. The most capable are Akwende Drives (also called Jump Drives), named for Dr. Shari Akwende, inventor of the faster-than-light Morvan Drive and first human discoverer of jump points.
The strategic importance of jump points is pretty obvious. Controlling both nodes on a jump line opens up huge new expanses of space. Their value increases further if nodes connect habitable planets, or additional jump points. For this reason, humans and Kilrathi often war over regions of space containing said points.
4. Imperium Warp Engine
Photo courtesy of the Warhammer 40,000 Wiki.
Parallel to the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a turbulent dimension called the Immaterium, or colloquially, “the Warp.” It consists entirely of the psychic energy that underpins the material universe. Scientists developed special spaceship propulsion drives to allow ships to enter the Warp and slip into its speeding currents. Upon exiting the Warp, the ship is found to have traveled tremendous distances in real space. The effect is faster-than-light travel.
The downside to entering a chaotic psychic realm is not only the daemons and dark gods that call it home, but also the certainty that such a dimension will immediately consume the soul of any traveler. To mitigate such risks, warp engines are equipped with devices that generate a protective Gellar Field around spacecraft. Still, traveling in such an inhospitable parallel universe is unpredictable at best, and ships often travel the Warp for weeks only to emerge and find that centuries have elapsed.
5. Infinite Improbability Drive
Here’s what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Infinite Improbability Drive: “The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace.”
For a long time, scientists worked hard to build such a drive, but after repeatedly turning up unsuccessful, deemed such a device a “virtual impossibility.” One evening, a student tackled the problem, reasoning that a virtual impossibility meant that it was, in fact, a finite improbability. He worked out how improbable it was, fed the data to a finite improbability generator, and created an infinite improbability drive out of thin air. He went on to win the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness, and to be lynched by a mob of scientists.
Physics later developed the Bistromathics drive, which, according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is “a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances without all that dangerous mucking about with Improbability Factors.” Bistromathics take advantage of the special relationship between numbers in restaurants—specifically the proper table seating for an indeterminate number of guests, the unpredictability of stated times of arrival (the study of which is called recipriversexcluson, itself defined as “a number whose existence can only be defined as being defined as being anything other than itself”), and the unique division of numbers on a bill.
According to the Guide, once bistromathics was recognized and understood, “So many mathematical conferences got held in such good restaurants that many of the finest minds of a generation died of obesity and heart failure and the science of maths was put back by years.”