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In Star Trek canon, any ship docks with Enterprise without problem and vice versa. If this involved only human, Vulcan or other known species ships, there's no point to this question, but even ships of 100% unknown species are seen to dock successfully.

I don't think there was an universal standard for docking port design and technology, because deploying such a standard universally is nearly impossible.

What's the canon explanation for universally compatible docking ports?

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  • Are you talking about TOS, TNG or ENT?
    – bitmask
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 16:35
  • Whole Canon... But, you can focus on ENT when they were eager to do more-n-more 1st contact with a primitive docking port..
    – user931
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 16:42

4 Answers 4

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As far as the 22nd Century is concerned, this isn't really addressed in the show, but it's discussed in considerable detail in the tie-in novel Last Full Measure.

In short, Archer is quite surprised that the airlocks on the Enterprise are compatible with such a wide range of species in the vicinity. Obviously they've have had support designing their ship from a space-faring species with an extensive pedigree, so his surprise may be a little unfounded/unfair.

O’Neill’s voice suddenly returned, slightly distorted by the high volume setting of Archer’s communicator. “Captain, I’ve figured out what’s going wrong with the docking procedure.”.
Archer could feel his chest lurch as his heart took a hopeful leap. “That’s great, D.O. How quickly can you fix it?”. Another pause. Then, “I’m afraid I can’t, sir. Not without at least a couple of fully equipped engineers in environmental suits, and at least half an hour.” The joyful flight of Archer’s heart suddenly felt more like a meteor’s fiery plunge on its way to cratering. At that precise moment, he made eye contact with Hayes, who restrained whatever fear he was experiencing behind a great bulwark of MACO stoicism. “Explain, Lieutenant,” Archer shouted into his communicator. “Our airlock and Trahve’s don’t appear to be compatible, sir.” She sounded embarrassed as well as frustrated. “Without access to a transporter, the only way to establish an airtight dock between these two ships is to unroll one of our pleximer emergency tubes.” Archer knew that he had no right to be surprised by this. After all, spacecraft built by various species, many of them never previously contacted, had docked successfully with Enterprise, and few crew members now regarded this fact as noteworthy in itself. However, what was really remarkable was the fact that more alien vessels hadn’t proved incompatible with Starfleet’s airlock specs.
“Tubes?” Trahve asked, his speech evidently still being translated by Reed’s padd despite the noise.
“They’re pressurized boarding tubes made out of a lightweight polymer plastic,” Reed explained. “But setting one up would take about ten minutes more than we have.”

As to how the locks actually work, there's extensive mention of physical docking "clamps". These are used in modern (mundane real-world) spaceships and the tech is well known and understood.


In the 24th Century, a much wider array of tech is available.

The DS9 Illustrated Handbook mentions "tractor beam emitters" and "electrohydraulic grab plates"

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And the novel A Time to Sow states that Geordi can use a force field to keep the air in a tunnel between the Enterprise-D and an alien colony ship even if the docking isn't solid.

“This is an external access point,” La Forge said, “probably a docking port, the only one I can find. Our own airlocks won’t match up perfectly, but we might be able to erect forcefields around the entrance.”

...

Even though the two hatches could not connect, owing to variations in their design, the forcefield acted to create a seal around the gap. La Forge had also taken the extra precaution of setting up a portable generator on the outpost’s side of the airlock to augment the energy barrier. Though not entirely comfortable with these little feats of mechanical wizardry, Vale figured she could deal with them long enough to accomplish her current task.

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  • The excerpt from the DS9 handbook makes me wonder how a docking port of a smaller kind could be used "to transfer cargo measuring more than 13 meters across" with "special accommodations". These must be some rather destructive accommodations for the cargo, the port, or both. Commented Jun 4 at 22:07
  • "The joyful flight of Archer’s heart suddenly felt more like a meteor’s fiery plunge on its way to cratering." WTF!? I feel it transcends "purple" and is on the way to ultraviolet. And it just keeps going. Have they sunk so low that they can't draft any SF writers for Trek anymore and they're hitting the Harlequin stables?
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 5 at 15:48
  • @DavidW - As much as it pains me to admit it, I quite liked this one. It was nicely pacey and felt like a couple of back-to-back episodes that could actually get made.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jun 5 at 19:50
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When Federation ships dock with alien vessels of unknown origin they most likely use a soft dock, that is, an extendable tunnel that creates a temporary mating between two vehicles that is capable of containing an atmosphere to facilitate the transfer of people and/or goods without the use of bulky individual environmental systems.
In Star Trek Enterprise this can be seen in action most prominently on the shuttles, as they will often extend a tube that mates with and creates an air-tight seal against the hull of the other vessel. By the time of Kirk and Picard Star Fleet was likely using force field based soft docking mechanisms.
From a distance, or from a poorly planned camera angle, the vessels would be so close that they would appear to be touching, but in most cases they likely weren't.

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  • "[the NX-01 shuttles] will often extend a tube" - do you happen to know an episode where we can see an example of this? Commented Jun 4 at 22:12
  • @O.R.Mapper The docking mechanism can be seen in the first season episode Fight or Flight, and also very briefly in Unexpected.
    – Xantec
    Commented Jun 5 at 2:21
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I can tell you the Star Trek: The Next Generation: Writer's and Director's Guide says nothing on the subject and neither does their technical guide.

It's not hard to make a universal docking port. Generally a docking port is a flat surface with a hatch in it that's big enough to walk through. A docking port like this is seen in the movies on the refitted Enterprise. That will be compatible with anything that's big enough.

The other part of a docking port (and it's hard to know which side is the male and which is the female part) is usually a docking ring (but it could be in another shape) that joins to the flat surface around the hatch on the other ship. There are several ways this docking ring can be joined to the flat hull on the other ship. They could use a vacuum seal or an electromagnetic seal (or probably other methods, too).

Also, and I can't remember when I saw this, I remember in one episode a docking ring is extended to mate with a small ship, like a shuttlecraft, where the hull isn't flat, but has an angle in it, but the docking ring was flexible enough to conform to the shape of the hull.

If we look at docking ports with this knowledge, then all it takes to make sure two ports are compatible is to make sure the ring covers an area larger than the hatch on the other ship and is flexible enough to mate with ships where the hull near the hatch may be angled or not exactly a plane. Since the Enterprise deals almost exclusively with humanoids, who almost all use a rectangle about the same size for a hatch, the docking port will be compatibile with any ships with inhabitants in that "range" of size.

So the Enterprise has docking ports or facilities that will be compatible with almost all ships, not just in the Federation, but throughout the galaxy. But it won't be compatible with a ship that has a hatch that is, say, 20' by 20' unless they have larger docking rings we haven't seen.

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    Of course by the time of TNG, being able to actually dock with another ship is more of a fall back feature, what with transporters on nearly every ship.
    – Xantec
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 21:14
  • But then that leads to the question: "Are the transporters on the Enterprise universally compatible?"
    – Tango
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 21:44
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    Ha. Someone should ask the Pakleds that question.
    – Xantec
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 21:47
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    @TangoOversway :) That doesn't make sense as transporters don't need accepting side efforts. You can be transported to & from a planet having no such technology..
    – user931
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 9:00
  • @SachinShekhar: Uh, I was being facetious about the transporter. That's the whole point: Compatibility is not an issue.
    – Tango
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 15:23
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With regard to docking ports/rings I think logically speaking you have to consider engineering functionality; with regard to ease of connections plus stability once connected. For ease of connection you have to use uniform and symetrical shapes such as squares, triangles, circles or quasi-circles (think pentagons or octagons etc.). While squares, triangles and quasi-circs have the advantage of a more solid lock to prevent slippage under torsional or shearing forces once docking is achieved; they have a few key disadvantages that outweigh their strengths. One they prone to catastrophic collapse of their shape once a certain level of torsion is reached because there is no give of play between ship and station during random divergent motion between the two bodies. Two, faceted shapes require much much more exactitude to accomplish a fit between the male and female portions of the docking ring. While true circles, can largely accept a seal with the corresponding dock ring regardless if the planar rotation of ship and station or ship and ship is perfectly exact. Also, rings are inherently stronger as a shape at resisting crushing forces than the other shapes. Circles being nothing more than an infinite arch structure. With regard to torsion once docked again rings are safer. They will rotate within the docked frame rather than collapse totally. Thus maintaining their integrity much longer that non circle shapes.

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  • This doesn't directly apply to Enterprise or even Star Trek.
    – miltonaut
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 9:32
  • @miltonaut: Nor does it answer in general how these docking ports would be compatible (size-wise, and with regard to anything that keeps the two ports of the two docking vessels in place once they have made contact) across alien species. Commented Jun 4 at 22:10

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