VOY@15: The Science of Star Trek Voyager

This week, Trekkies are in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the premier of Star Trek Voyager. Staying in the spirit, we’ve decided to bring you a very special ‘Science of Voyager’ edition of Science Friday this week. Is the Caretaker’s array really possible? Are the badlands a kind of phenomenon we might actually encounter in space? Are bio-technological space ships possible? What about holographic doctors? Answers to all these and more!


The Caretaker’s Array
The premier episode of Voyager features prominently the Caretaker and his array, a huge space station capable of sending star ships hundreds of light years across the galaxy — maybe even further. But, how does it all work? And, is there any real science behind it? In my opinion, the way it is presented is, on its face, completely fiction. The concept of faster than light travel is plausible by today’s knowledge of science. Even warp drive operates on somewhat steady ground as far as the science is concerned. But, the Caretaker’s array is said to use a displacement wave, a kind of “polarized magnetic variation” that causes the transport of space ships vast distances in mere seconds. Putting aside for the moment my bafflement at how something could generate a strong, faster-than-light traveling, directed magnetic pulse at a specific point in space-time hundreds of light years away, this type of faster-than-light travel breaks the laws of physics. Unlike warp drive, which bends space-time itself rather than propelling the spacecraft, this magnetic pulse would have to travel through space as energy and carry along a space ship as matter. Matter nor energy can move faster than light through space.

Luckily, the writers put extremely advanced aliens behind the whole thing, and they really shroud the “how it works” part in mystery. One could argue that my extremely limited knowledge of the inner workings of the array and how the displacement wave works makes it impossible for me to understand. Touche, screen writers, touche.

The Caretaker’s Array

The Badlands
In the premier episode, the USS Voyager and the Maquis raider Val Jean were playing a game of hide and seek in an area of interstellar turmoil known lovingly as The Badlands. In Star Trek lore, this area of space got is name from the massive amounts of dangerous plasma storms, gravitational anomalies, and the total loss of sensors that will occur should a starship decide to venture in. Scientifically, does it add up? On paper, yes. It is entirely possible for an area of space to be home to a dense network of energy and gravity phenomena that we don’t understand. My bone to pick with the Badlands is purely in the imagery. I mean, what’s with all the clouds? Do people really think space is cloudy? This goes for all nebulae as well. These things aren’t super dense. Yes, they look like pretty spirals of color from here on Earth, but up close and personal, they’re pretty vast. Editors note: It is possible that the Badlands is in an area of intense star formation, something that occurs in nebulae. This would create higher densities. Still, clouds?

What, are they in the SUN?

Bio-Neural Gel Packs
The USS Voyager was one of the first starships equipped with brand new bio-neural gel pack technology. A series of interconnected gel packs are integrated into the ships systems and reside all throughout the ship. The packs contain “neural” fibers surrounded by a blue organic goop with metallic interfaces at the top and bottom of the packs. They act as an organic computer system for the ship. This is a technology that is being studied today. We already use organisms to our advantage to break down harmful compounds and transform waste products into reusables. It is definitely plausible that this kind of tech could advance to the point where it could be used as an energy storage system. Kind of like The Matrix for amoebas.

A series of bio-nerual gel packs

The Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH)
The Emergency Medical Hologram was one of the most integrated new technology in Voyager, and it is totally plausible science. Holograms are already becoming a reality today, and several prototypes are already out there. The other aspect of the Doctor beyond his holo-imagery is, of course, his consciousness. He is arguably self-aware, making him his own new form of life. Philosophers have postulated for decades (even in previous Star Trek series) about computer programs becoming advanced enough to become essentially more that the sum of its parts and becoming something we would call, “life.” Throughout the Voyager series, the Doctor’s character becomes more and more important. We get to watch him grow, gain the respect of his peers, and eventually even leave the ship with the help of his mobile emitter. Could computing technology one day advance to the point where this sort of thing is possible? Definitely, yes.

The Doctor, our favorite EMH

Poll: Tell us your favorite VOY science and win a prize!
There were so many great scientific aspects to Voyager: fluidic space, transwarp, tons of time travel anomalies. What’s your favorite scientific tech, concept, or phenomenon from Star Trek: Voyager? Tell us on Twitter by noon today, and you could win a fantastic prize! Send a reply to @kaylai or @TrekMovie. I will be picking my favorite response(s), so be creative!


TrekMovie’s Science Friday is an homage the the great NPR radio show Science Friday. Science Friday® is a registered service mark of ScienceFriday Inc.

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i dunno bout all of you , but i wouldnt mind a hologram of megan fox in my bedroom lol :P

One of the greatest legacies of Star Trek is that it did manage to predict the future of certain technologies in a very plausible way.

And #1 Craig — I think having a a hologram of Megan Fox in my bedroom would be one of the most frustrating experiences of my life! ;)

And #1 Craig — I think having a a hologram of Megan Fox in my bedroom would be one of the most frustrating experiences of my life! ;)

Wouldn’t know that fun loving little brother would come by your room and yell, “COMPUTER, END PROGRAM” right as the action started.

I always enjoyed the episodes that explored the “humanity” of the doctor. In fact any ST episodes that delved into machine intelligence that became self aware.

There were quite a few episodes on Voyager where the holo characters became self aware. The thought just captured my imagination.

I liked the humor that the Picardo brought to his role. And I thought it was especially fun when the Dr inhabited 7 body. He was over the top but I loved that episode.

“The concept of faster than light travel is plausible by today’s knowledge of science.”

Kayla – to which theories are you referring? FTL travel is a topic I’m interested in, and I just wanted to see if had any information that I haven’t come across. Everything I’ve read indicates that “plausible” is a pretty generous description of the current theories out there. This is a pretty good article IMO:


Unfortunately, Einstein’s speed limit seems to be holding up quite nicely. Even if there are some theories out there with merit, aren’t the energy requirements ludicrously out of reach?

@ Rob

You’re definitely correct. Any possible theories for achieving FTL travel require tremendous amounts of energy, which we cannot produce with today’s tech. I think an antimatter energy drive, like warp cores on starships, would be enough energy to power FTL, though I have not done the calculations.

But, just by the looks of it, those warp cores are HUMONGOUS. And it doesn’t take a lot of anti-matter to release lots and lots of energy. So, when I say “plausible”, I suppose I mean IF we can overcome the energy requirements, and design the thing. But, of course, that is no small step. So, plausible as in scientifically possible, given enough assumption :)

I disagree that “the concept of faster than light travel is plausible by today’s knowledge of science”. FTL is simply not possible. And a hologram like the EMH is impossible too. Projection without a medium? And even physical interaction? LOL.

@7 Schultz Did you consider air as a medium ;-)


#5, #7, etc. – I highly recommend checking out Michio Kaku’s “Sci Fi Science” on the Science Channel. He tackles these very problems like warp-drive & space exploration. Likewise, his interview in The Guardian’s “Science Weekly program took on the “physics of the impossible.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/audio/2009/jun/11/michio-kaku-physics-impossible
Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Not exactly… He predicts only a couple of centuries for some of these breakthroughs.

#9 et al. Not impossible? FTL is in fact impossible, because you can’t get around the causality problem. The universe of Star Trek would be filled with spaceships whereever you flew, hundreds of thousands of “copies” of the Enterprise ships ever built etc., maybe millions or more, one for every flight ever done at warp speed.

#8 Air is not sufficient as a medium for projecting a hologram. You need some form of particles in the air. Otherwise the light from the hologram projectors would not be reflected.

@10 Schultz Warp speed does not violate any laws of physics. The only thing can can travel faster than light is space itself (in fact, space is at this very moment expanding faster than the speed of light). Warp drive does not propel the spacecraft, but bends space-time around it. So, you are moving space-time, not the ship.

This is what makes this tech possible. The hurdle is the energy requirement, which is tremendous.

@10 Shultz Also, holograms in air are possible and being designed today. Have you heard of heliodisplays? http://www.io2technology.com/

“#8 Air is not sufficient as a medium for projecting a hologram. You need some form of particles in the air. Otherwise the light from the hologram projectors would not be reflected.”

Not a scientist here but a device that could amplify the resistance of the air surrounding a point in space it seems you could bounce energy repeatedly off an increasingly resistant air “barrier”. In effect using the air to form an exterior shell for the energy to be repeatedly redirected within the confines of the shell.

Controlling variant resistances on the X, Y and Z coordinates could model a form or “screen” on which to project light. The enhanced resistance could act as the……

Oh, I give up…my head hurts.

#11 Kayla: Whether you warp the space around the ship or actually propel the ship itself to FTL doesn’t change the causality problem. With warp technology you would still get from A to B *as if* you had actually propelled your ship to FTL.

And where is space expanding faster than the speed of light? It’s not. It only *seems* that way. The fact that light isn’t fast enough to travel from one end of the universe to the other doesn’t mean that space itself is expanding at FTL speed.

#12 Yeah, that’s what I meant. Particles (aerosols etc.) in air. Without particles you have no hologram. And a hologram that even talks and physically interacts with its surroundings (incl. carrying a mobile emitter!) is not possible.

Miguel Alcubierre proposed his famous short theoretical framework for FTL with a “warp drive” in 1994. His paper can be found as PDF here:

Problem was the need for exotic matter because his calculations showed a violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However in quantum field theories this might be possible.

Recent studies calculating the possible within quantum field theory and more realistic assumptions about creating a warp bubble show that it could work during subluminal flight, but will become unstable at FTL. Worse, calculations show that the front and the back of the bubble will resemble a black and a white hole horizon, leading to Hawking Radiation up to 10^32K.
http://arxiv.org/abs/0904.0141 is a short abstract. Centauri Dreams blog has a more elaborate explanation of the article:

Based on the different outcomes of theoretical research results I wouldn’t conclude too hastily that FTL is not plausible by today’s knowledge of science and “simply not possible”.

#16 Yes, the exotic matter problem. More problematic is the amount of exotic matter that you would need. The same goes for the masses of antimatter necessary for a hypothetical warp reaction. You need too much of it, a few thousand times the mass of the ship—and that only for subluminal flight (impulse speed). You’d have to graze the whole known universe for collecting enough “exotic” matter (or anti-matter) for FTL and/or warp speeds.

#6 – The volume of structure and internal pressure vessel, plus the volumes of the PTCs (power transfer conduits) are needed to contain a large reserve of “juiced” plasma to fire up the warp coils in the nacelles. True, the actual reaction doesn’t take up a lot of room in the engine, but the hot plasma does. If the matter/antimatter reaction ceases for some reason, or is ramped down too quickly, the plasma in the loop helps take the ship out of warp in a more controlled fashion. It’s all been worked out. :)

Thanks Kayla – this is fun!

@17 – You can make anti-matter with today’s science. By the time any kind of warp device may be created, it seems reasonable that we will have mastered containment and creation of lager amounts of exotic matter. Perhaps we would not have to go anywhere to obtain it.

I thought the bioneural net replaced the optical data net – and the gel packs replaced the isolinear chips.
Yes, we use bacteria to sythesize or degrade stuff for us, but that is something completely different.

#17 based on calculations by Cleaver and Obousy (http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.1957) the energy requirement for such a bubble achieving FTL would be equivalent to a mass of Jupiter. Still ludicrous, but not impossible, theoretically speaking.
The causality problem is another thing indeed, and it could well lead to closed causality loops, not so much to the appearance of thousands of the same objects. I have seen a paper dated not long after Alcubierre’s paper appeared, but can’t find it now, sadly.

But remember that in the “warp theory” the light beam is still traveling in space-time, while the ship in the bubble is not: it is not accelerating relative to the spacetime in its immediate vicinity. Spacetime in GR is not something static. In the warp field theory, GR causality is not violated.

Voyager was a great show. It had many a gret story. Some of the Voyager Eps were among the best in all of Trek. As like the other series it did have some realy bad ones. The Science of Voyager realy pushed the realm and did a good job of makeing most of it believable. So much of what the Tos series had is coming true today. Bio Beds and tricorders and of course desk and lap top computers and Tele communications with cell phones and the list just keeps going. Voyager and Ds9 and Ent are starting to do the same.

WOW Kayla! EXCELLENT Article!! =D

…unfortunately, I am resisting Twit(ter) and Facebook and all that…

I think my favorite tech thing in Voyager was when Paris got to build and pilot his own little hot rod shuttle craft – vicarious enjoyment…

Let’s not forget the nuanced understanding of the processes of evolution demonstrated in “Threshold.”

#21 Well, not thousands of the same objects. They’re of course not the same. My bad. It’s basically like in the Picard maneuver.

@ Shultz Not to drag on this argument, but I just want this to be clear. The universe is, in fact, actually expanding faster than the speed of light. This does not conflict w/Einstein, as space itself does not have a limiting speed limit, as does matter.


So, there you have it.

The universe is expanding as a function of distance. The further away a galaxy is from us, the faster it is moving. This is because space-time is what is expanding, the galaxies are not actually moving away from us. This also explains why it appears that all objects in space are moving directly away from Earth, our point of observation. Imagine you are an ant standing on a stretchy piece of rubber. If someone pulls and stretches out that rubber, it will seem, to you, as if all of the points sitting with you on that rubber piece are moving away from you. They’re not actually moving themselves, the medium is expanding.

@24 Imrahil Yeah… we’re going to pretend that never happened!!

@26 Kayla,

I feel like that ant some days. grin

Kayla: Kudos for having a sense of humor. :)

I felt like the only time Voyager used the goopy thinky puter bags was when they were in danger of failing. We never saw why the bags gave Voyager an edge over other spacecraft.

I liked “Threshold” — except for the very end.

The EMH seems like something we might get one day, but I wouldn’t really trust one. I’d rather have an experienced human with a good computer… plus lots of life insurance.

Thanks, Kayla!

Even though Voyager pretty much ruined the Borg for me I was always interested in the Borg tech. Transwarp conduits, nano-probes, collective consciousness, the idea of technology mixed in with people at that level was fascinating. Then again, we look at today’s society and in some sense’s its already happening. We walk around with headsets to stay connected to everyone, smart phones to access any data we need, medical tech that augments failing organs, etc. Maybe we’re already on the road to self-assimilation.

Personally, I wont discount any possibilities in science (and I’m a scientist). Our laws are controlled by our perceptions and limits as humans and in recent times have become limited by our preoccupation with cartesian principles.

I guess what I’m saying is that the “human perception” of the universe and what is/is not possible is just that – the human perception and it’s accompanying laws. This MAY infeact be a very limited and constricting view of “how things work”. Sure it all fits nice and neatly into little boxes (very cartesian), but that doesn’t mean it’s the “ultimate truth”. Laws of physics that were once considered cardinal have been superceded, and will be again.

So when it comes to Star trek etc, I think it’s dangerous (but fun) to say whether something is or isn’t possible when based on current perceptions/theories in science/physics.


I love when Sternbach comes on to explain something. When I read it I almost forget he is talking about science fiction. He explains it in such a way that I almost feel like I can go out to the garage and build a warp reactor with some tubes, glue and duct tape.

By the way, I loved the ships you and John Eaves designed/illustrated for the different shows and movies. I also think it’s great that you, Bob Orci and some of the others from past and present trek come on to talk to the fans. It let’s us know that what the fans think is important to you guys.

#33 – Thanks for that. We certainly tried to make some sense of the tech in Trek, without intending any of it to be regarded as the oft-labeled technobabble (if it sounded wacky, it wasn’t my fault). As I tell people, it’s only babble if it makes no sense. The 23rd-24th century tech we offered was really supposed to be logical extrapolations of what we have and what’s just around the corner, and that means everything from cellular biology to FTL drives. I’m proud of the good stuff that we created; doing ships is an extension of what I learned about things like steam locomotives and fluids systems and launch vehicle construction. I also smack my head whenever ships duck into a little nebula to hide, or we see asteroids with atmospheres. There’s plenty of other wild stuff to see and do “out there” without those old chestnuts. Media SF writers and filmmakers still have a ways to go, but they’re getting better.

I was always fine with the so-called technobabble in the shows. It grounded the show in reality. The various Star Trek series had their fans, some that were fans of only that particular show, and the technology made sense for those fans. I do realize the movies needed more broad based appeal, since they cost so much, so they would tone down the tech talk a bit.

My favorite ship of all was always the 1701-D. Like a city in space, but with some teeth. Everyone was all mad when they killed Kirk in Generations. You know what had me all upset? That they destroyed the Enterprise-D. Man I loved that ship. The E was cool but it just wasn’t the same.

Love you Rick Sternbach! Your work on Trek is wonderful!

I want to know about beaming. Ok. So in laymen’s terms… the transporter takes apart the molecules of an object and then records using 1’s and 0’s the data on how to reassemble them. Then it uses that data file to reassemble the molecules in another location within range of the transporter’s reach? Am I essentially right? So what matter is used to reassemble the molecules? Can you only transport to a location with the required molecules present in the atmosphere? When someone transports, does the location serve as the source of the matter to be recompiled? You can’t send the MATTER itself … you have to use the data file and then reassemble at the source, no? Plus, the original matter is stores in the transporter so you have something to use when Joe gets back…

This is a fun conversation I always have with my friends. I’d love to get details so I can finally solve it. :)

Again, you are awesome Sternbach!

I must confess to perhaps being a bit dense, but I have never quite understood why faster than light travel is claimed to create a problem with causality.

Might someone explain just one more time?

Ah, yes, Threshold.

That was suddenly a great leap forward in scientific knowledge. I must admit, I did not know that space travel causes individual humans to spontaneously become salamanders.

You know, like when a wizard turns somebody into a frog on Xena: Warrior Princess.


LOL, that episode was a little bizarre. I guess if that is what we are destined to become millions of years from now, I don’t want to go to Warp 10. I loved all the shows, but like everything, they weren’t perfect. Occassionally they did a show that made me cringe a bit.

#36 – In TNG, we transported the actual matter itself, otherwise you have a too-powerful SF gizmo that replicates people. Imagine unraveling a person’s molecules like a knit sweater, where the yarn is (hopefully) unbroken, and knitting it back together via a buhzillion micro-forcefields. The amazingly narrow matter stream (you hear that term in dialogue) is focused and sent -inside- an energy beam (the annular confinement beam or ACB), the molecular connection site info is streamed (not completely stored) and used for reassembly. It’s also like streaming a TV signal with no VCR. The matter buffer tank under the floor of the transport pad is used to hold the stream, but can only work for about seven minutes. Remember how Scotty stayed in the tank for 70-something years? It was a bit of trickery with the buffer and the recombiner cycling back and forth, if I recall. Now -that- was a clever use of our tech memos. See the TNG tech manual for more crazy fun stuff. That was easy, huh?

Wow some of you guys really put a lot of thought into this stuff. I myself would just rather look at the cool spaceships on their weekly missions and use this whole thing as an escape for awhile. It beats wasting that hour each week thinking about the next work day or what bill I’ve got to pay next. See another good reason for a new weekly series. Abrams, Paramount, CBS, anybody, somebody? Please?

#40 Rick Sternbach

Hey!! Thank you!

I’m going to read your answer over a few times, but it really SOUNDS like it makes sense! :) That was always the beauty of TNG et al — no matter how crazy, it felt like it made sense in MY world, too. I remember looking up the Transwarp Conduits when I first watched Descent, and finding that they were based on real science and just being blown away and overjoyed by how deeply I could explore the ideas… Inspirational.

Hey, my follow up question … The matter is fired in a beam down to the planet. So it’s the SAME transporter recompiling the matter on the other end? See, I’ve always been confused by the lack of receptor. Is it that the transporter is just able to take apart the matter and fire it INSIDE a beam tunnel to another location, where the transporter then puts it back together? So it IS moving the matter. The trick is the energy beam? Hmm.. Interesting idea. I’d want to know more about the ACB now :P

Thank you so much.

#42 – A real tech fan, I see. Yeah, the outgoing beam contains the reassembly instructions, so the teeny weeny thin molecular thread is jacketed by the very energy modulations that put the stream back together. The beam knows -where- to start reassembly by the targeting system; those buhzillion micro force field vortex spinnies in the ACB are given a specific lifetime so you materialize standing on the ground and not fifty meters up. Though as we all know, accident will happen. ;)

#43 – Rick Sternbach

Haha… Huge fan of the tech, but not really always able to sort out the answers on it. I love that it makes sense and I love how it gives you avenues to explore if you’re interested in theory, just based on your choices of words.

Thanks again for more details on the transporter. That is super cool.

Is all of this stuff in the Tech manual? I should get my hands on one of those. You were one of the writers on it, weren’t you? What’s the latest edition?

I’d ask more about your guys’ conception of physical memory (engrams?) as well, but I don’t want to seem like a fanatic :P Thank you so much for what you’ve already shared! It’s wonderful to hear about this. Maybe sometime when you’re available, come by and let me know about that physical memory… that stuff wouldn’t be in a tech manual would it?

Rick Sternbach, you are the man! I could listen to your techno-jargon all day long! We need you back on Trek!

Wonderful article and great comments. I worry that too many fans of this site won’t read it due to the title of the article (some only visit for celeb news and news about the next movie.) This article deserves to be given a larger audience. Can trekmovie.com make that happen?

Transporters are still total nonsense. The machine turns me into energy, shoots me to someplace else, then puts a copy of me back together.

I’m dead, and a beamed-up me is roaming the world in my name. And then next time he uses the transporter, he is killed and replaced with a copy.


#44 – Don’t think we ever examined biological memory stuff in much detail. We may have supplied the writers with an occasional med term dealing with neural things, after some research, but not much else. I stuck mainly to ships and props and mech/high-energy systems and processes, just to keep it all consistent and non-goofy, so we didn’t end up throwing big drums of Budweiser into a black hole. ;)
#45 – Actually, I’ll be working on something Trek related shortly. Can’t say what yet.

#48 – And you did an amazing job at it. Looking forward to seeing you back on a Trek project… that’s some of the best news I’ve heard in a while..

48. Rick Sternbach: “…just to keep it all consistent and non-goofy, so we didn’t end up throwing big drums of Budweiser into a black hole. ;)
#45 – Actually, I’ll be working on something Trek related shortly.”

EXCELLENT!!! Congrats and welcome back!! =D

Can’t wait to see your work again! WOOT!!!