I know that the lighting system for the models/3d models is used for theatrical effects and for the scene, but is there an in-universe explanation?

Examples: View of Voyager from above and aft on the starboard side; Voyager is illuminated from above, fore and port, with shadow on the camera-facing side of the saucer. View of TOS Enterprise from below, fore and starboard; Enterprise is illuminated almost directly from starboard, with shadows from the sensor dome and support pylon cast towards the port side. NX-01 Enterprise from the port fore quarter, just above the midline of the saucer.  Enterprise is illuminated from a point above the camera and almost directly in line, with a strong reflection directly in front of the bridge and strong shadow at the edge of B deck. TNG Enterprise viewed from just below the starboard warp nacelle, with the Borg cube in the background. Enterprise is illuminated from the starboard fore quarter, below the saucer.  The outboard side of the nacelle and the side of the pylon are strongly illuminated, the underside of the saucer weakly.  The back of the warp nacelle and saucer are in shadow.

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    There is no in-universe explanation: not everything has one.
    – user366
    Aug 3, 2011 at 7:20
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    It could be coming from the closest star, if you think about it, it is very possible there is always a light source from some star with an unimpeded view. If you think about it, even on a moonless night on Earth there is still some light given off by the stars, imagine if we were "closer" or not covered by different layers that each absorb a little light.
    – Sydenam
    Aug 3, 2011 at 7:57
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    nice theory, Sydeman, except you see the same when they're in deep space (even in system, when not near to a star) where the illumination from stars just wouldn't be enough to cause this. In fact there you have the answer: it's studio lights used because any realistic display would just be completely black with nothing to see. Same reason you hear sound in external scenes. In space it should be complete silence, but that doesn't make good television.
    – jwenting
    Aug 3, 2011 at 9:22
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    Well, when they're in deep space, they pay another ship to follow them around with bright spotlights so they always look good and they broadcast sound effects over subspace channels to all the ships around them whenever they do something so they just seem that much cooler.
    – BBlake
    Aug 3, 2011 at 12:12
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    I actually just watched an episode of Voyager where the ship was traveling through a vast dark section of space. In the exterior shots for that episode, the ship was only ever illuminated by its own lighting and was in shadows throughout. So at least in that episode, they accounted for the lack of lighting.
    – BBlake
    Aug 5, 2011 at 2:40

3 Answers 3


There is no very good in-universe explanation for this, as Star Trek has addressed this issue incompletely and inconsistently. However, when the Enterprise was being refitted for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the show's designers realized the same thing you did: Large parts of the film took place in interstellar space where there's no convenient light source, but the viewers needed to be able to see the ship. Perhaps we can assume that the designers of the refit decided that people outside the ship should be able to visually identify the ship.

They (the designers of TMP or the Enterprise, take your pick) came up with the solution of having the ship light itself. If you look closely, you'll see that the ship carries its own floodlights and shines them on select parts of the ship. This wasn't a complete solution, as they still used fill lighting on the model, but it at least added a slight level of realism.

USS Enterprise-A showing self-lighting

Enterprise-A in space viewed from below the starboard fore quarter.  A light fore of the sensor dome illuminating the ship's designation.  Other self-illumination lights appear to be on the side of the secondary hull and warp pylon.  Enterprise is still mostly visible due to a general illuminance with no specific source.

This seems to have been abandoned for the Enterprise-D design used in The Next Generation. However, the Enterprise-E displays similar lighting:

Enterprise-E in space viewed from above the starboard fore quarter against an orange dusty nebula.  There is a low level of general illuminance and no strong shadows, but a light mounted fore and below the bridge illuminates the ship's name and designation on the top side of the saucer.

As a footnote, in Night, an episode of Voyager, the ship was traveling through a starless void, and the ship was shown to be much, much darker from the outside.

In summary, there's a lot of artistic license included in what you see on-screen. However, we've been thrown a bone in that the ships light themselves, at least a little bit.

Voyager in a starless void

Voyager in a black starless void, viewed from above the starboard warp nacelle.  Voyager itself is almost black, except for the glow of the warp drives and light leaking from portholes.

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    Great answer. As for why the Enterprise-D didn't have exterior lighting, I posit the explanation is completely out-of-universe; most of the movie enterprises have the "nameplate lighting" because the movies have bigger budgets and more attention can be paid to detail. The singular exception is the Enterprise-D, because the D from Generations is supposed to be EXACTLY the D of the series; not a refit, not a recommission. So, it has to match the series EXACTLY or viewers can be confused.
    – KeithS
    Jan 6, 2012 at 20:38
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    After watching that same Voyager episode (Night), I started assuming that it is basically starlight and that exterior views are in some sort of enhanced / night vision mode (in a camera that exists somewhere on the boundary between in-universe and out-of-universe).
    – HNL
    Feb 12, 2012 at 15:06
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    @HNL The main problem with that explanation is contrast. The ships have floodlights and lit windows, which would be much brighter than any reflected starlight - and yet you can still see the "starlit" hull clearly, while also seeing the directly lit areas just as clearly. This either suggests some very special contrast management in the cameras, or that the incident light is much more intensive than starlight. Or just consider the ST shows Federation propaganda, and you're fine - TV crews following the flagship with their own light, or reënacting "historical moments".
    – Luaan
    Mar 7, 2017 at 12:27

When you think about it, it’s very rare to see the ship at impulse in true interstellar space. Mostly they’re in star systems where the local sun would light the ship at least as well as spacecraft in our own solar system.

At warp it’s hard to say how it works, but there are the rainbow effects so clearly some measure of visible spectrum is present.


I would say because no one would watch a show were all out side shot were blackness, sometimes you just need to remember that they are going to need to take "liberties" to make the viewing experience more fulfilling. When it comes down to it we want to watch good television not necessarily technically accurate TV.

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    This is probably true, but the question is asking for an in-universe explanation. Aug 14, 2011 at 23:55
  • Some questions don't have answers, so there is no in-universe explanation. Mar 8, 2019 at 4:59
  • Could the light be computer generated for the crew to feel comfortable - like looking out their window when on Earth? Mar 18, 2019 at 22:48
  • I would say that could be an explanation if the light moved across the viewports or turned on and off in some way, having the equivalent to bright street light outside day and night (subjectively) outside your viewport seems counterproductive if it is the in-universe reason.
    – Vaughn
    Mar 19, 2019 at 19:05

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