Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Trek Annoyance #3

I mentioned last post that having the warp pods/nacelles/emitters/rockets exposed on weak struts is clear evidence that Star Fleet's engineering and design sector were lobotomized by the medical department next door. Now I'm going to thrash the entire Warp Engine itself.

The warp engines are about as well designed as the Chernobyl reactor.

There are, maximum, one or two safety systems in place. That's unacceptable. That's asking for trouble. What if that system fails? Then you're screwed, that's what. Aside from the in-house safety systems, you can eject the entire 'core' and be done with it, although in at least one episode that system failed, too. So, let's look at it: there are two or three systems in place to prevent the warp engine from destroying the ship, one of which requires jettisoning the main power source. Wonderful. For something as vital and prone to failure, you would think they would install systems all over the place.

Failsafes, the philosophy should be: the more, the merrier. In my opinion, you should have at least three different systems in place to kill the reactor, which all operate on completely different techniques to quench it. There should be at least two ways of physically ejecting the engine: the standard way, and a quick mechanical release. Perhaps even make the core eject on default, like a dead man's switch. In the event of massive power failure or breach, the switch would turn off and automatically eject the core.

This concept of 'safety' isn't exactly new. Nuclear Reactors have extensive safety systems in place, hence why Chernobyls are not common. That's why nuclear missiles aren't launched off just because some dumb satellite detected a launch from the general direction of Sweden. It's why you have circuit breakers or fuses in your home.

In fact, when you think about it, we could probably look at nuclear reactors on naval vessels as examples of the safety equipment on a ship. The fuel rods aren't exactly weapons grade first off, so it's not like each ship is being loaded and powered by a small atomic bomb (although, I think some submarines run on higher purity uranium). Second, in the event of overheating, there is most definitely some portal which allows seawater to flood in (one way) and rapidly cool the core. And I think if that fails, the control rods lock and 'scram' the reactor, essentially shutting it down.

The first problem with the Warp Engines is that the safety systems deal exclusively with either containing the reaction within or getting rid of the thing. Unlike a nuclear reactor, it requires 'antimatter' to be injected in (or so I'm told). Why isn't there a fuel cutoff or vent? In the event of disaster, they could simply divert the fuel into space and deny the core the fuel needed to explode.

Second, a lot of the failsafes in Star Trek rely upon the computer. Everything. There's no manual control for some of these systems, if there is, I haven't seen it so far. This is all well and good until the computer gets knocked out. Since the computer relies upon the warp core for the majority of its power, and the warp core is the problem system, the crew regularly gets shafted when both fail at the same time. There's no crank or old fashioned mechanical release to get control or get rid of the core. If you don't have the power to generate the containment fields, repair said fields, or eject the core, you're dead. There's no direct manual control.

In Star Trek, there must be no hand held fire extinguishers, they assume the building sprinklers will always trip and work on every fire, even when episode after episode it's shown that the building has no water. Hell, Second Life, with all its problems, has more redundancy systems in place, which make sure that if some servers go down, the rest don't follow, and if you're stuck in a down server you get teleported elsewhere and numerous others I'm missing or forgetting.

Third, they keep the goddamn engines running hot all the time. I just saw an episode where the chief engineer was trying to increase the power emitted by the engine, to make it more 'efficient'. Nonsense. This ticking time bomb, you want to get more power out of it? The output should be tuned to the need. Anything more is just wasteful and fueling the time bomb that is the core. It violently explodes at its current levels, you do not need to add wood to that fire.

Believe it or not, Nuclear power plants in real life do not run close to criticality all the time. The reason why you don't need weapons grade uranium to run a power plant is because you don't need a giant runaway nuclear reaction, you just need a small taste of energy to heat the water and make the steam to power the turbine. Similarly, if the ship is hanging around or cruising (as it was when the chief engineer was 'tuning'), it doesn't have to be flooded with fuel and run 'hot' all the time.

What can be done? Nigh upon anything. Quite frankly, in regards to the warp core and safety, they're at rock bottom. Almost any addition, however small, would be dramatically better than the current system. Just think of any idea, and it's more than what's currently in Trek. Go nuts, offer anything.

I personally would tune the engines down and tailor the power so it's directly proportional to the ship's need, and not into some engineer's ego about who has the most horsepower (as if you run your hot rod in gear 5 all the time).


Ari Blackthorne™ said...


Ari Blackthorne™ said...

LOL (I see my / nerdmode and / nerdmode didn't appear)

Anna J Tsiolkovsky said...

Haha, Blogger screws things up.

Also, I'm being extremely generous here, since I'm not even touching the fact that all that energy generated has to go somewhere. I mean, you can't generate 10 gigawatts of power and then just have it disappear. Technically, the ship should be an oven as the excess energy is converted to waste heat, frying the crew.

And I imagine it's extremely difficult to get rid of it, since radiators to dissapate the heat would be nowhere near as effective as on Earth, since there's no air to circulate and carry off the heat (as one Trek fan suggested radiators).

See how nice I am? I'm ignoring that simple tenet of thermodynamics.