This is a real-world question about the inspiration behind a visual effect.

In the Star Trek: TNG series, several episodes depict a view out the windows of Enterprise D's Ten Forward as the ship enters warp. The same effect may also be seen elsewhere in the franchise.

I've seen footage of aircraft accelerating at low altitude through supersonic; the effect of the transition produces some temporary condensation patterns ahead of and around the aircraft.

I couldn't help noticing a visual similarity between the real-world supersonic transition and the Ten Forward view and wondered if it was mere coincidence or source of inspiration for the show's visual effects artists.

  • TNG employed science consultants, I'm sure it isn't just a coincidence, good question. – Crow T Robot Aug 3 '14 at 20:05
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    I suspect/guess the answer is "it looks cool". – Keith Thompson Aug 4 '14 at 16:30
  • Thanks very much for the TNG vid. Could you also link to one for the real-world, sound-barrier–breaking effect you've seen? – jtheletter Oct 19 '14 at 1:42

Since this is tagged "real-world," I assume the idea is to answer it based on current physics theories. Here that would mean special and general relativity. The issue of faster-than-light (FTL) motion in special and general relativity is not quite as simple as some people might suggest. FTL isn't absolutely prohibited, but there are a variety of issues -- a sort of "defence in depth" -- making FTL spaceships difficult to reconcile with relativity. The one that would seem the most relevant here is the following.

Special relativity gives us a way of predicting how reality would "look" to an observer in a certain state of motion, and it gives us ways of converting from an observer in one state of motion to an observer in another state of motion. The word "look" is in scare quotes because although we can calculate how things would look visually, that's complicated, and usually we consider simpler methods of observation through measurements analogous to surveying or GPS.

This conversion system breaks down when we try to convert between observers in states of motion that are moving relative to each other faster than the speed of light. Putting it very loosely, the effect of going past the speed of light would be to make space look like time and time like space. But since we have 3 spatial dimensions and only 1 time dimension, that doesn't work. (For anyone who really wants to see the hairy math behind this description, the relevant paper is V. Gorini, "Linear Kinematical Groups," Commun Math Phys 21 (1971) 150.)

So the basic answer is that there are very firm reasons why, according to current theories of physics, there's no sensible way to talk about what it would look like to a person aboard a spaceship as it surpassed the speed of light.

The effect you were making an analogy with is actually an effect seen by an external observer as the plane goes past the speed of sound. The analogy here would be with a phenomenon called Cerekov radiation. This is a type of bluish light that can be seen in a nuclear reactor. It happens when a charged particle is moving through a medium, at a speed that is greater than the speed of light in that medium. (This speed is still less than the speed of light in a vacuum, and it's OK according to relativity.) There is some debate about whether a particle would produce Cerenkov radiation if it was moving faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. This was a big question a few years ago when neutrinos were believed to be going FTL in a debacle at the OPERA particle experiment at CERN. Since that turned out to be a mistake due to a loose cable, we don't really know the answer to that question.

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    I was hoping to find out the source of the visual effects design - pure artistic invention or inspiration drawn from a phenomenon associated with technology of our present day real world. Should I have tagged it "production" instead? – Anthony X Aug 4 '14 at 0:57
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    @AnthonyX - I understood perfectly what you're after. This ain't it. – Valorum Aug 4 '14 at 16:06

Perhaps it's their (the program's special effects team's) speculation that the view from within a warp field (or warp bubble) would appear refracted (rainbow-colored), as light passing through a medium such as a bubble, a prism, or an atmosphere does.

Sci–fi warp-travel (both within Star Trek and in other stories) has for decades been generally theorized to work by surrounding a ship in a field or bubble of warped space.

The Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (1991, p. 54) states that in-universe inventor Zephram Cochrane originally described his warp drive as a "continuum distortion propulsion."

The Alcubierre theory (1994) suggests a field/bubble that specifically contracts space ahead of the ship and extends space behind the ship, allowing the ship effectively to travel faster than light, without locally (within the field/bubble) breaking light-speed.

Memory Alpha describes Star Trek's warp drive thusly:

It worked by generating warp fields to form a subspace [warp] bubble that enveloped the starship1… The warp field was a subspace displacement that warps space around the vessel, allowing it to "ride" on a distortion and travel faster than the speed of light.2

The concept of warp-travel has been illustrated variously (both within Trek lore and by independent theorists) as below:

Various images

Interestingly, at least one person has suggested in Scientific American (2000) that a sort of combination of Einstein’s contraction/expansion and Doppler’s red–blue shift would more likely be visible:

As the velocity increases, stars ahead of the ship appear ever closer to the direction of motion and turn bluer in color. Behind the ship, stars shift closer to a position directly astern, redden and eventually disappear from view altogether.

SciAm image

Otherwise, it's difficult to draw yet any real-world examples. NASA and some private parties are exploring ideas, but they have yet to release macroscopic results.

  • That bubble drawing is not from any Trek source, just someone using a drawing of a Trek ship to illustrate the Alcubierre bubble. And Alcubierre didn't propose this idea until 1994, the effect predates that. For example, the clip beginning at 2:33 in the youtube video from Anthony X's question, where Picard is talking about Ira Graves, is from the episode "The Schizoid Man" which first aired in January 1989. – Hypnosifl Oct 19 '14 at 4:45
  • @Hypnosifl, I've added a Trek reference, if that might help alleviate your concern. – jtheletter Oct 19 '14 at 17:59
  • memory-alpha is one of those sources that can be edited by anyone, and there is no reference for the claim that the warp bubble "warps space". In the Next Generation Technical Manual and other sources from before the Alcubierre bubble became popularized, I always saw the warp bubble being described in terms of a "warp field" surrounding the ship (connected in some way to the concept of "subspace"), not curvature of ordinary space. – Hypnosifl Oct 19 '14 at 18:04
  • For example, p. 54 of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual says "The key to the creation of subsequent non-Newtonian methods ... lay in the concept of nesting many layers of warp field energy, each layer exerting a controlled amount of force against its next-outermost neighbor." And p. 55 says "a subspace field of one thousand millicochranes or grater becomes the familiar warp field". So it just seems to be a stronger/shaped version of a "subspace" field, the nature of subspace isn't very clear but it doesn't seem to be the same as the curving of space in general relativity. – Hypnosifl Oct 19 '14 at 18:08
  • Finally it's misleading to say "Below are two visualizations of the general theory", since the visualizations are both clearly intended to depict Alcubierre's theory, not the "theory" of nested warp bubbles depicted in diagrams from sources associated with the show like this one (from p. 66 of the Tech Manual). – Hypnosifl Oct 19 '14 at 18:13

Out of universe, the warp entry effect was designed with the primary aim of looking modern and more realistic than the effects used in the Star Trek films which, although at the time cutting edge, were now looking decidedly dated.

Bob Justman, supervising Producer on Star Trek described the visual as the "rubber-band effect".

BJ: Yeah, it’s a new show. Also, I had an idea for an effect. I didn’t like the warp speed effect in the features. I thought it looked animated, it looked cartoony — it didn’t look real. I wanted to have, to do something else instead of having those lines, those broad lines coming back — it looked so fake to me. But that’s the best they could come up with, creatively speaking. You know, I remember when I’d see the cartoons many years ago, some character would run fast, and get kind of started off, and then the rest of them would catch up? I said, what we need is a rubber-band effect, so when the ship takes off to go into warp speed, the effect should be — and I described this to the people that were going to make it — that the front end takes off and the ship stretches out and then it snaps back to itself like a rubber band as it’s going forward. I said, that’s the effect that I want. And they didn’t know how to do it at first, but they finally figured it out. I don’t know how they do it, to this day, but they figured it out and that’s the warp speed effect that you see in the new show, in the main title and elsewhere in the show. The ship can go — if it’s cross-screen, the ship will start into warp speed and go like “dannnngggggrr”...

LN: And then bang!

BJ: The tail end catches up with it.


BJ: Here’s where we put in the rubber band effect, and the flash [in the title sequence]

  • That quote is purely discussing what the outside of the ship looks like as it enters warp. The question is about what people inside the ship see when going to warp. – user1027 Jan 25 '15 at 0:38
  • @Keen -And the starlight streamers; youtu.be/hFfwUv7yqIw?t=47s – Valorum Jan 25 '15 at 0:49

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