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When the enterprise (ENT) is moving at warp we see numerous stars flying past in the windows:

enter image description here

However, according to warp speed charts, at warp 5 (the maximum speed of the 1st enterprise) it would take 7.4 days to get from the Sun to Alpha Centari, our nearest star(s) approximately 4 light years away. So to have stars whizzing past every few seconds would imply that the stars are very close together.

Is this an inaccurate depiction of star movement at warp, or is there some explanation like the warp bubble creates a lensing effect?

Now I realise the classic answer is "suspend your disbelief, it's a tv show", but the animators have at least thought about the star movement as they have added in a bit of red shift and blue shift which you can see in the image.

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    I remember reading a fan theory years ago--probably in one of the Best of Trek books--that they could be comet nuclei. Basically, chunks of ice or rock were the only things that would be present in the right quantities. – Kenster Oct 25 '15 at 12:08
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    @Kenster - The EU novels contain a wide variety of suggestions; dust, stars, nuclei of passing particles, computer-generated streaks projected by the shield, etc – Valorum Oct 25 '15 at 14:33
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    From the TNG Manual: "The Galaxy class starship Enterprise has a lot of windows that look out into space, giving many of our sets a wonderful sense of "really" being on a starship. This requires us to do a lot of bluescreen shots to show streaking "warp stars" whenever the ship is traveling faster than light. Naturally, these visual effects are very expensive. The result is that there have been a few times when budget considerations have forced our producers to find an excuse — any excuse — to have the captain take the ship down to impulse so that we can avoid the extra expense." – Valorum Oct 25 '15 at 19:17
  • I've never seen a canon explanation, hence this is not an answer, but in my head-canon, I've always assumed this was a distortion effect courtesy of seeing the stars from inside of the warp field. Since it's normally seen as something akin to a magnetic field (or electron shell, sometimes) around a ship, I thought the 'streaking stars' were just a matter of perspective being magnified by being seen thru the field -- i.e., the way moving a magnifying glass over written text will distort things to the edges -- only much more severe. – K-H-W Jun 27 '17 at 17:59
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Main Canon

There are several instances within the script (seen on screen) and the script directions that indicate that the streamers are in fact stars;

Hoshi in Ent: Fight or Flight explicitly states that the movement is caused by stars:

ARCHER: Yes.

HOSHI: The stars are going the wrong way, sir.

ARCHER: Wrong way?

HOSHI: On both my training tours, I had port side quarters. I'm having trouble sleeping.

Within the scripts

From TNG: Unnatural Selection

BEYOND THE PORTS the stars streak toward us at warp speed.

Rina has a clear view.

RINA: Beautiful, isn't it?

GEORDI'S POV -- He "sees" the ship's navigational shield as a gossamer scrim of shimmering color, and beyond, countless waves of energy bursting from exploding suns.

And from TNG: The Vengeance Factor

MAROUK: A light meal in twenty minutes.

Yuta nods in obedience, but Marouk has already turned away to look out the port at the stars streaking by.

And from TNG: Yesterday's Enterprise

EXT. The ship is traveling at WARP SPEED and the stars STREAK by

And from TNG: Tin Man

INT. TAM ELBRUN'S GUEST QUARTERS (OPTICAL) - TAM is STANDING by the long WINDOW, face half-away from the camera, watching the STARS STREAK BY at warp.

And from DS9: Once More Unto the Breach

The viewscreen shows the stars as they begin to streak by at warp, the crew go about their jobs with a professional precision

And from TNG: The Emissary

EXT. SPACE - THE ENTERPRISE (OPTICAL)

as the probe "pulls up alongside" to starboard as the stars streak past at warp nine.


Contradictions

Obviously the flipside of this is when we see Zephran Cochrane's ship at warp within the Sol system and yet still see star streamers. This can potentially be explained by the presence of interstellar dust interacting with the warp field or deflector fields (which Cochrane may or may not have had). Highly accelerated particles would glow as they suddenly gained momentum.

That being said, the script then disagrees further, referring the the streaks as both "stars" and "warp stars"

As Picard and Geordi are slammed back into their seats and the stars WHIP PAST the windows in the familiar warp effect.

and

GEORDI: Dropping out of warp.

Out the front windows, the warp stars STOP... the ship JOLTS slightly... turns to the left... Earth can be seen in the distance.


A similar effect occurs in TNG: Descent when the ship is traveling at high impulse.

enter image description here

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    If we want an explanation that fits with canon but actually makes sense, we could just imagine that what's seen out the window is a combination of streaking stars and some other types of streaks that look similar (say, high-speed dust particles impacting the deflector shields), and people on board casually refer to all the streaks as "stars". Alternately it could be some weird optical effect, like the light from different types of stars being refracted by different amounts by the warp bubble so they appear to move relative to each other. – Hypnosifl Oct 25 '15 at 16:31
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    What about the idea that "the stars streak by" refers to an optical effect, similar to the apparent motion of the stars around the wormhole in the movie Interstellar (see around 11 seconds into this clip) based on a real phenomenon called gravitational lensing which is due to the warping of space caused by gravity? That doesn't seem to be clearly contradicted by the scripts. Do you have the original script for First Contact, and if so do they refer to stars streaking in that scene? – Hypnosifl Oct 25 '15 at 17:01
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    I'm not sure the term used in the script to describe a visual effect is necessarily evidence they are stars in universe. (I actually believe it's a known goof for visual effects purposes. I just don't think we can cite it as evidence. ) – ThePopMachine Oct 25 '15 at 17:46
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    It's an anachronism. We say "shooting star" but it isn't a star. I'm ok with either the lensing effect or debris interacting with the deflector shield explanation. Obviously the effect is there to give a sense of motion, otherwise, over the astronomical distances involved, it would seem like the ship is standing still. – Schwern Oct 25 '15 at 18:44
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    @Richard, re reading this, I actually believe you have the focus wrong. What you call "contradictions" are the best evidence. We have them within the Solar system at warp one. It means that "warp stars" are not astronomical stars. And that means the depiction at high warp makes sense too. They are not stars. and there is no contradiction. – ThePopMachine Oct 30 '15 at 4:07
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Richard's answer is a good one. But I want to add. I don't see anything there that categorically indicates the 'warp star effect' actually exists in-universe. The closest we have is @Richard's first quote

HOSHI: The stars are going the wrong way, sir.

This doesn't deny the possibility that as you pass near stars, they go by a particular direction. This would be visible, but not as thousands of streaks every minute. So Hoshi could still say this.

Everything else is a script indication of visual effects only.

So I'm offering the (admitted less likely possibility) that

The 'warp star effect' may not be visible in-universe at all, and only exists to convey motion to the audience.

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The only reason for stars to streak past at that speed is if the ship is spinning.

Normally, this would mean that regardless of the window you look out of the stars should be going the same direction, but we are talking about warp technology here.

Warping space means that normal concepts like left, right, forward, and back change meaning.

Imagine that the warped space folds inwards at the nose of the ship. In birds eye view: The right side of the ship is spinning counterclockwise and the left side of the ship is spinning clockwise at the same time.

  • Can you expand on the normal concepts changing meaning and why the ship is supposedly spinning? I don't quite follow and it's a bit confusing. – Edlothiad Jun 27 '17 at 14:55
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TV audiences need some visual indication that a ship is moving, and not just a stationary field of stars whose positions change very slightly over a period of a day or so. But maybe Star Fleet crew also find this visual indication useful, so that they can see at a glance that the ship is moving, and how fast it's going. Since it seems likely that all the "windows" on starships are actually computer screens fed from external cameras, the moving star effect may simply be programmed in to give this useful visual indication.

  • We know this idea of windows being display screens is not the case (except for on the bridge) from all kinds of canon evidence. – ThePopMachine Oct 25 '15 at 18:39
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    @Schwern. Anything could be, but this is not worldbuilding.se. There is no visual, script direction, or dialogic indication of this proposal in several hundred episodes. – ThePopMachine Oct 25 '15 at 18:50
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    @MikeScott - Downvoted because this seems like headcanon/fanfic. Feel free to ask as a question though - Something like "are the windows on the Enterprise screens or just windows?" – Valorum Oct 25 '15 at 19:00
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    @MikeScott, in 700 episodes and 12 films? Well then I can claim there are 200 crewmembers from Yoda's species and a Snuffleupagus on the Enterprise and we just never saw them because we were unlucky. – ThePopMachine Oct 25 '15 at 19:06
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    @ThePopMachine - There were dolphins on the Enterprise-D. That's about as close to madness as you can get – Valorum Oct 25 '15 at 19:08
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I always just assumed that the warp field did something to the light coming from distant stars. If the light that is coming from a distant star is only reaching our eyes as a point of light, surely traveling towards them at warp would cause us to see much more of that light in a shorter amount of time, and if the warp bubble is not completely static then it could be possible that it has a refractory effect on the light rays coming into the bubble, bouncing them out again and appearing as streaks.

  • This seems like little better than guesswork. – Valorum Oct 5 '17 at 10:03

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