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Old December 28 2012, 06:56 AM   #1
Crazy Eddie
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Caseless Torpedoes

Canon tells us that photon torpedoes are essentially projectile weapons, fast-moving missiles that can move at warp speed or very high sublight speed and then explode when they hit a target. This has been basically the case for photon torpedoes since we first saw the torpedo room in Wrath of Khan and it's been more or less consistent ever since.

But I've spent a couple of years grappling with how torpedoes are ACTUALLY USED: how they're targeted, how they're launched, the kinds of things that go wrong with them, the kinds of things they can be programmed to do. More and more, I am convinced that photon torpedoes simply do not make sense as projectile weapons.

That, inevitably, leaves me with the question I now put it to my fellow tech heads: given everything we've seen, if photon torpedoes aren't physical "missiles," then what else COULD they be?
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Old December 28 2012, 07:41 AM   #2
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Here's what The Making of Star Trek has to say on the subject:

The Enterprise is equipped with a second type of offensive weapon, called photon torpedoes, which are energy pods of matter and anti-matter contained and held temporarily separated in a magno-photon force field. These can be used as torpedoes or depth charges, and can be set with electrochemical, proximity, and a variety of other fuses. Photon torpedoes can be fired directly at a target, laid out as a mine field, or scattered in an attacker's path as depth charges.
So, at least as originally conceived, photon torpedoes were physical ordnance analogous to naval torpedoes, mines or depth charges, depending on how they were used.
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Old December 28 2012, 10:03 AM   #3
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Ideally, photon torpedoes would be ideally suited as the only weapons that can be fired at warp velocities, but since phasers can be fired at warp too, well...

Perhaps photorps simply have a longer range and more of a punch at such ranges than phasers do (which may lose power the further along they go). The casing would then make sense as a both a kinetic force weapon and the container for the torpedo's propulsion and guidence systems, IMO.
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Old December 28 2012, 02:43 PM   #4
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

The original series definitely did not establish the photon torpedos to be projectiles with a casing and I really like what Andrew Probert said on the issue:

"I envisioned them as what we saw during the TV era, they were glowing globs of plasma or some sort of energy. They weren't giant capsules. I envision them as big, glowy, dangerous blobs of... scariness." (Question # 6 http://www.trekplace.com/ap2005int01.html)

While "Errand of Mercy" could suggest that the photon torpedos did contain antimatter (Spock: "Blast damage in decks ten and eleven, minor buckling in the antimatter pods") the actual dialogue could also refer to "buckling" of the antimatter pods in the warp drive nacelles.
After all, Kirk asked Scotty in "Obsession" to get him some antimatter from the nacelles, not from a photon torpedo (!).

Theoretically, the "old" photon torpedoes may have simply used energy plasma from the matter-antimatter reaction (opposite to using this plasma to "charge" a phaser bank) but by the time the Making of Star Trek was published they had obviously settled for the matter-antimatter torpedo concept.

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Old December 28 2012, 02:54 PM   #5
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

The Eggnogstic wrote: View Post
So, at least as originally conceived, photon torpedoes were physical ordnance analogous to naval torpedoes, mines or depth charges, depending on how they were used.
That is how I think of photon torpedoes as well.

They appear to be versatile, guided, yield-adjustable, self-propelled weapons. In TOS and TOS-Movies, they appear to be also the "go to" weapons when the ship becomes power-limited due to excessive shield stress or other power expenditures.
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Old December 28 2012, 04:02 PM   #6
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Robert Comsol wrote: View Post
While "Errand of Mercy" could suggest that the photon torpedos did contain antimatter (Spock: "Blast damage in decks ten and eleven, minor buckling in the antimatter pods") the actual dialogue could also refer to "buckling" of the antimatter pods in the warp drive nacelles.
Since Spock was describing damage to the ship, I never thought he was talking about anything BUT the ship's warp drive antimatter supply.
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Old December 28 2012, 04:07 PM   #7
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

My original impression from TOS was like Probert's - energy blobs. But later, that made less and less sense to me. You'd want a missile weapon to be guidable, steerable, programmable, with target sensors, proximity sensors. A physical cased torpedo is all that makes sense.
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Old December 28 2012, 05:33 PM   #8
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Things get even more fun if one wanted to include FASA's take, in which phasers and photon torpedoes were relatively new weapons by the time of TOS. Prior to the development of photon weaponry, older ships used an accelerator tube to fire nuclear warheads with somewhat less destructive power and range than what the photon torpedo achieved.
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Old December 28 2012, 06:50 PM   #9
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Forbin wrote: View Post
My original impression from TOS was like Probert's - energy blobs. But later, that made less and less sense to me. You'd want a missile weapon to be guidable, steerable, programmable, with target sensors, proximity sensors. A physical cased torpedo is all that makes sense.
Actually, that's what got me thinking that energy-ball torpedoes actually make more sense plotwise, since photon torpedoes are so very rarely used in situations where guidance, steering, programming, target sensors or proximity sensors would need to be used.

There are four big things that bug me about them, actually:
1) Starships typically fire torpedoes from a small number of sophisticated, fixed-position launchers. They are almost always fired one or two at a time, rarely in salvos.

2) Torpedoes apparently require a considerable amount of power to use, since even Federation vessels like Defiant cannot fire them while cloaked and sometimes they cannot be used at all during low-power conditions.

3) Torpedoes do not always (or even usually) explode when they hit things; they sometimes "splash" against a target, flattening out and then disappearing altogether. This is especially the case when torpedoes hit shields. It actually appears that the torpedoes THEMSELVES do not explode, but merely cause things they hit to deflagrate on contact.

4) Phasers can be used to shoot down missiles, rockets, fighters, shuttlecraft, even regular-ass normal torpedoes. But not, for some reason, PHOTON torpedoes.

I'm leaning on the theory that "photon" or "photonic" torpedoes might be exactly what it says on the label: torpedoes that use a weaponized photonic technology. Photonic being Trek parlance for "holograms," which we know as a matter of course can be surprisingly deadly; it could be that photonic torpedoes are really just a type of extremely unsafe hologram.
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Old December 28 2012, 08:10 PM   #10
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Since Spock was describing damage to the ship, I never thought he was talking about anything BUT the ship's warp drive antimatter supply.
That would drive a somewhat frivolous wedge between Spock's two sentences, the first of which establishes the decks he is concerned about. More significantly, we saw where the Klingons hit our heroes - on the underside of the saucer, not at the nacelles. It would take unnecessary effort to postulate "further hits" or "unrelated sentences in the report"...

1) Starships typically fire torpedoes from a small number of sophisticated, fixed-position launchers. They are almost always fired one or two at a time, rarely in salvos.
This might go well with the idea that torpedoes are "command-guided" or "semi-active" and can achieve nothing if the ship that fired them does not provide constant support of some sort.

It might not be limited to guidance, even. Perhaps torpedoes indeed are "aphysical" blobs of plasma that are both propelled/guided and held together by a subspace field projected from the mothership - and the Romulan plasma weapon is simply the same thing in a larger scale? That is, perhaps the physical casing evaporates at launch (but can also be used in non-evaporating applications such as probes).

This doesn't go well with the fact that we sometimes see glowing balls of fire emerge from a launcher yet a physical projectile very definitely reaches the destination: Spock's coffin and the dud torpedo from "Starship Down" are examples of this. Also, some torps are described in rather blatant plot terms as fire-and-forget weapons. All we are missing is a clear case of a ship being destroyed after launching a torp, yet the torp continuing to pursue its target... But since this is such a cinematic classic, I wouldn't bet against a future movie or episode featuring such a scene.

The piecemeal firing might thus best be taken as a case of the projectiles (or actually their antimatter warheads) being expensive rather than expendable. For the same reason, ships bristling with dozens of missiles today don't ripple fire; two missiles per target is already the sign of desperate priority expenditure.

2) Torpedoes apparently require a considerable amount of power to use, since even Federation vessels like Defiant cannot fire them while cloaked and sometimes they cannot be used at all during low-power conditions.
Might just be that when primed, they radiate considerable power, which not only has to be compensated for from the ship's supplies until the very launch, but will shine through most cloaks.

3) Torpedoes do not always (or even usually) explode when they hit things; they sometimes "splash" against a target, flattening out and then disappearing altogether. This is especially the case when torpedoes hit shields. It actually appears that the torpedoes THEMSELVES do not explode, but merely cause things they hit to deflagrate on contact.
This might speak more of the shields than of the weapons deployed against them. And the shields must have some pretty magical "disappearing tricks" up their subspace sleeves anyway, because otherwise the "secondary" effects of an otherwise "deflected" shot would no doubt be lethal in themselves - transfer of momentum, release of energy into the shields thus necessitating its further release from the shields somewhere else, etc.

Also of note is that hits by decidedly non-projectile weapons against shields cause "gasoline explosions", in DS9 and VOY and ENT at least, but also to some degree in TOS and TNG as well. These "glowing balls of fire"/"flashes of light" may hide the fact that an actual antimatter explosion from a properly detonating torpedo is in fact a singularly unimpressive and often completely invisible, well, sight. Which it in reality might well be.

4) Phasers can be used to shoot down missiles, rockets, fighters, shuttlecraft, even regular-ass normal torpedoes. But not, for some reason, PHOTON torpedoes.
Even in the oddly scaled visuals of Star Trek, photon torpedoes are significantly faster than the other objects quoted. That didn't stop Kirk from ordering a torpedo to be targeted in ST2:TWoK, though - and in a point-blank situation where a modern CIWS system would have real difficulty coping.

it could be that photonic torpedoes are really just a type of extremely unsafe hologram
Nothing against this cool idea as such. But see above.

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Old December 29 2012, 12:09 AM   #11
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

After seeing a photon torpedo as a physical object in TWOK. I just figured that the torpedo glowed after launch because of both the propulsion system and that it had a ultra high-powered shield system to protect it from being shot down. That would explain it's glowyness and the large use of power when launching them. Only a full-power phaser hit could destroy it.
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Old December 29 2012, 02:01 AM   #12
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Timo wrote: View Post
This doesn't go well with the fact that we sometimes see glowing balls of fire emerge from a launcher yet a physical projectile very definitely reaches the destination: Spock's coffin and the dud torpedo from "Starship Down" are examples of this.
Spock's coffin makes an interesting datapoint, IMO, considering the "torpedo" that launched him left a long visible trail all the way back to the launch tube and streaked into Genesis' atmosphere, something no torpedo has ever done before or since. It's especially telling since none of the OTHER torpedoes fired in the movie gave this kind of effect; thus, it's safe to assume that Spock's torpedo tube was highly unusual for torpedoes.

The same is equally true of the Jem'hadar torpedo from "Starship Down" which 1) leaves a visible "exhaust trail" as it flies and 2) only appears glowy because the casing glows. That gels nicely with the Narada's torpedoes, which likewise have glowy bits and leave exhaust trails but lack the distinctive glowy fireball appearance of traditional photon torpedoes.

So we have to rule out the "that's just the way missiles look in space" explanation. Photon torpedoes APPEAR to be something different; not quite a missile, but not quite an energy bolt. The middle ground -- some type of "photonic bolt" probably fits the bill; it's likely that security forcefields and deflector shields are related technologies too.

Might just be that when primed, they radiate considerable power, which not only has to be compensated for from the ship's supplies until the very launch, but will shine through most cloaks.
I have a hard time seeing how that would be the case, since both the warheads and the drive systems of a self-propelled missiles could be left on hot standby until the order is given to fire up and launch. That would seem to be an incredibly simple way of enabling fire-while-cloaked operation of the weapon systems.

Also of note is that hits by decidedly non-projectile weapons against shields cause "gasoline explosions", in DS9 and VOY and ENT at least, but also to some degree in TOS and TNG as well.
This is fairly rare against shields, it seems to me (at least, in cases where shields are visible at all). I won't even go in to the sudden and random non-existence of shields in the big DS9 battles (except to say that Conservation of Badass is hard at work there).

These "glowing balls of fire"/"flashes of light" may hide the fact that an actual antimatter explosion from a properly detonating torpedo is in fact a singularly unimpressive and often completely invisible, well, sight. Which it in reality might well be.
We've been over this before in different threads, but I'm again forced to ask the question: It doesn't look like a duck, doesn't quack like a duck, doesn't walk like a duck, doesn't even smell like a duck... so why should I believe it's a duck?

Dialog and tech manuals suggest that photon torpedoes employ antimatter warheads to produce explosions, but visuals and plot logic never EVER bear this out. Why should we believe that a torpedo can be set for "Hiroshima" when the highest setting we ever see is "Oklahoma City"?

4) Phasers can be used to shoot down missiles, rockets, fighters, shuttlecraft, even regular-ass normal torpedoes. But not, for some reason, PHOTON torpedoes.
Even in the oddly scaled visuals of Star Trek, photon torpedoes are significantly faster than the other objects quoted. That didn't stop Kirk from ordering a torpedo to be targeted in ST2:TWoK, though
I'm still not convinced Kirk actually intended to shoot down Khan's torpedo, though. It'd be nice to think so, but doubtful.
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Old December 29 2012, 01:04 PM   #13
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

I have a hard time seeing how that would be the case, since both the warheads and the drive systems of a self-propelled missiles could be left on hot standby until the order is given to fire up and launch. That would seem to be an incredibly simple way of enabling fire-while-cloaked operation of the weapon systems.
We're dealing with antimatter containment here, so it might not be all that easy to make the "hot standby" sufficiently "cool" for comfort. Also, we do know the torpedoes in flight exhibit this strange glow that greatly reduces their tactical value, so clearly the glow cannot be eliminated with technology alone, not the way gunpowder can be made smokeless or muzzle flashes suppressed. Quite possibly, in order to fire a torpedo, you have to get it glowing inside its tube at least fifteen seconds before the intended launch. All the more reason for our heroic skippers to micromanage the "loading of torpedo bays" in every battle...

This goes well with the general trend of it being impossible to maintain a starship in fighting trim for any real length of time. Even in wartime, ships sail with shields down until clear and present danger presents itself. "Ready phasers!" is a necessary command even in the very middle of a prolonged fight. An infinite standby mode for torpedoes would be in contradiction with what we see!

This is fairly rare against shields, it seems to me (at least, in cases where shields are visible at all).
Indeed - but very common in cases where dialogue establishes the invisible shields as holding. "Call to Arms" is a trend-setter here.

OTOH, when torpedoes "harmlessly disappear" at shield impact, we are admittedly always dealing with bubble shields.

Why should we believe that a torpedo can be set for "Hiroshima" when the highest setting we ever see is "Oklahoma City"?
I don't see the objection here. We have seen torpedo yields vary from "flash-bang" to "geography-rearranging grapnel of Tsar Bombas"; furthermore, dialogue has established that the yield indeed is variable. No type of torpedo explosion should surprise us in the slightest. And all types should be well within the realm of the "actually" possible, too, as the witnessed torpedo casing offers a known volume of empty space (enough to hold a Klingon amazon), and efficiently annihilating that volume of suitable matter ought to nicely suffice for the biggest explosions yet witnessed.

Photon torpedoes are inherently contradiction-free weapons thanks to their variable yield and general controllability. No narrow audience expectation should ever trump this built-in flexibility.

[qujote]I'm still not convinced Kirk actually intended to shoot down Khan's torpedo, though. It'd be nice to think so, but doubtful.[/quote]

What alternative interpretations might exist? Kirk can't be talking about firing at Khan's ship, because nothing about that would be "too late"...

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Old December 29 2012, 02:50 PM   #14
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

One alternative interpretation that might exist is that Kirk was planning to shoot the Reliant itself pre-emptively before it could fire again at the Enterprise. Too late--Reliant got another shot off before Kirk could get power diverted to the phasers.

Targeting at the photon torpedoes? I wouldn't think so.

KIRK
Visual!
(sees visual)
Mr. Sulu, divert everything to the
phasers --

SPOCK
(re screen)
Too late --

On VISUAL SCREEN, Photon torpedoes approach...

KIRK
Hang on!

The bridge is shaken badly, screens go dark, fires spark
and erupt. ALARMS and SOUND full. Crew personnel try
to put out electrical fires, help the fallen --
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Old December 29 2012, 04:18 PM   #15
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Re: Caseless Torpedoes

Timo wrote: View Post
Since Spock was describing damage to the ship, I never thought he was talking about anything BUT the ship's warp drive antimatter supply.
That would drive a somewhat frivolous wedge between Spock's two sentences, the first of which establishes the decks he is concerned about. More significantly, we saw where the Klingons hit our heroes - on the underside of the saucer, not at the nacelles. It would take unnecessary effort to postulate "further hits" or "unrelated sentences in the report"...
Ah, but we know the script and the special effect were not always in sync. Nobody knew what or where an antimatter pod was at the time, and all the effects house knew to do was show some hits on the ship somewhere.
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