Star Trek popularized the term “warp speed” but the franchise has created several alternatives to travel by warp drive technology. By the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, warp drive had been in existence for roughly three centuries, and had progressed considerably in the time since Zefram Cochrane’s first warp flight. Warp drive allows Star Trek‘s starships to travel at speeds faster than light by forming a warp bubble that locally distorts the space-time continuum to enable the ship to travel at a degree of warp velocities. It’s the most widely used form of interstellar travel in the 24th century, but recently some replacements have been introduced, borne out of necessity.
An alternative to warp travel is being sought by Star Trek Discovery season 4’s tragic villain, Ruon Tarka, following the devastating effects of the Burn. With the dilithium needed for warp drive technology being vastly depleted and at risk of instability, the Federation was looking into advancing Discovery’s spore drive technology. However, this is just one of many alternatives to warp travel that have been introduced in recent Star Trek canon.
The Spore Drive
The spore drive was introduced in Star Trek: Discovery season 1, as Starfleet co-opted the research of Paul Stamets and Straal to gain an advantage in their war against the Klingons. Stamets and Straal’s research was based on the idea that, on a quantum level, the universe was no different from a living organism. The implication of this discovery was the theory that a starship, aided by a suitable navigator, could traverse a subspace network of spores known as the Mycelial Network.
It was a groundbreaking discovery that allowed Discovery to abandon warp travel in favor of this more organic approach. It wasn’t without its drawbacks, however. Although the spore drive allowed for near-instantaneous travel across the network, it could take a physical toll on the navigator. Starfleet began investigating a non-human interface, but this research was abandoned and evidence of the drive was suppressed when Discovery was lost during the Red Angel incident. The Federation of the 32nd century has now picked up where the 23rd century had left off.
The concept of transwarp travel was introduced in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, when Starfleet was attempting to install a transwarp drive aboard the USS Excelsior. However, it remained a theoretical concept until Picard’s Enterprise encountered the Borg. The Borg used transwarp technology to travel across the galaxy at speeds beyond traditional warp travel. This would later be harnessed by Admiral Janeway when she traveled back in time to get the USS Voyager home much faster.
To date, no one has been able to install a transwarp drive, presumably because better alternatives have been found to exist. Another drawback to the transwarp drive is the severe mutations that Tom Paris experienced while trying to break the transwarp barrier during the efforts to bring Voyager home to the Alpha Quadrant. A safer option was also found during Voyager’s time in the Delta Quadrant.
Quantum Slipstream Drive
Admiral Janeway’s new starship connects to Voyager and its time in the Delta Quadrant. The USS Dauntless has a quantum slipstream drive, which means that the starship is able to travel at speeds far beyond standard warp capability. This is necessary for Janeway’s mission back to the Delta Quadrant to recover the Protostar and discover the whereabouts of her former Number One, Chakotay. The Voyager crew first discovered the quantum slipstream drive when it was used as a lure in a revenge plot against Janeway and the crew in the season 4 finale “Hope and Fear”.
In Star Trek: Voyager season 5 episode “Timeless,” the crew attempted to construct their own quantum slipstream drive, but due to a miscalculation, Voyager crashed into a planet, killing all hands. It was up to Chakotay and Kim to travel back in time and fix the miscalculation. Their mission brought them up against TNG‘s Geordi La Forge, who attempted to stop their dangerous temporal plot. Correcting their mistake, Voyager abandoned experiments in slipstream technology. Sometime after Voyager returned home, B’elanna Torres led the construction of the USS Dauntless, which was fitted with a quantum slipstream drive.
The Protostar Drive
Star Trek: Prodigy introduced the USS Protostar, an experimental starship that had a completely new power source, an actual star. The protostar is the earliest phase in stellar evolution, which neatly reflects Prodigy‘s younger crew. While the protostar drive still requires a dilithium matrix to operate, it can travel far faster than any other ship in the fleet. It’s implied that the Protostar was sent to the Delta Quadrant to address some of the mistakes made by the Voyager crew during their time there. The ship was captained by Chakotay, who is now missing along with the rest of his crew.
Janeway was present at the launch of Chakotay’s new Starfleet ship, and has taken it upon herself to track the missing vessel down. The USS Protostar is the most advanced ship in the fleet, and Starfleet are terrified that it will fall into the wrong hands, unaware that it already has. The crew of the Protostar have been able to outrun the Dauntless so far, protecting the Federation from the weapon housed inside the ship. However, Prodigy revealed that the quantum slipstream drives and protostar drives can reach similar speeds, so all it will take is for one false move for the highly advanced USS Protostar to be recaptured, spelling disaster for Star Trek‘s Federation.