A nerdy question about Star Trek: First Contact nobody apparently has asked before today


Hey, so you you know those three super-advanced late-24th century quantum torpedoes that the Enterprise-E fired at the Phoenix in the climax of Star Trek: First Contact?

Whatever happened to them?

We know they never hit the ship, which means they just kept on a-flying. So presumably they didn't self-detonate after a specific period of time and just sailed on and on and on.

Now if this was in open (interstellar or intergalactic) space, obviously they would just sail on in a continuous direction forever. They are, however, in the solar system which means that while space is still massively vast with huge distances between everything, they are in the influence of numerous gravity wells. The Enterprise was in Earth orbit at the time, probably about 35,000km (and for those keeping score, I knew that without looking it up), and based on the geometry of the scene where the starship's shadow falls over the Phoenix cockpit, the torpedoes were being fired generally away from the planet. So now if becomes a question about how fast the torps were going: if they were going fast enough that Earth's gravity couldn't slow them down enough to pull them in, they would escape into "emptier" space. Otherwise they would have eventually fallen to earth [we had a 4 hour argument about that capitalization... -ed] or burned up in the atmosphere...and I'm not entirely comfortable with what a quantum torpedo would do if it burned up in the atmosphere.

If the torpedoes did escape the Earth's gravitational pull, it would still be influenced by the Sun's gravity as well as the gravity of neighbouring stellar bodies such as the Moon and possibly Mars or Jupiter. A soft landing on the Moon or Mars is a possibility, otherwise they could be in a slow orbit around the Sun. And in that situation isn't the ever-expanding human expansion into the cosmos going to eventually result in the torpedoes being discovered? And either accidentally exploded or successfully reverse engineered? Star Trek: Enterprise bothered to bring the Borg back for 22nd century adventures but nobody ever covered what happened with these torpedoes.

So we swing back to the two (er, 2.5) options depending on the speed of the torpedoes. How fast were they going? Here's where things get tricky and many a canon argument comes from.

Based on what we saw on the screen, the quantum torpedoes were going less than 60 km/hr. Not only is there an agonizing (and dramatic for the purpose to create suspense in some imaginary audience that might have been watching Picard and Data's adventures) delay between shooting the quantum torpedoes and them flying past the Phoenix, but we watch them pass the Phoenix at a speed that if you were driving this on the Anthony Henday I'd point my handgun at you.

However, that could just be argued as a limitation of the film medium. If space battles were depicted on film the way they would really be fought the audience would be perpetually confused and bored, watching tiny specs at the corner of the screen firing even tinier specs that ages later would reach the original specs and maybe touch or maybe not. In other words, the size of speed of a "real life" quantum torpedo would be such that if you showed the Phoenix as the torpedo raced by all you'd see is a quick flash that didn't register with you the viewer. So artistic license wise, the torpedoes are shown slower than they appear (the proton torpedoes that Luke fired at the Death Star in 1977 similarly better not behave like they do on screen).

The assumption, therefore, is that those torpedoes at no point without intervention would come into contact with a heavenly body over the timeframe of the Star Trek franchise (even if you consider Discovery to be canon which it obviously isn't, it only goes out to the 31st century). So they are either still out there, or...somebody found them. (And as the post title notes, my searches online haven't shown anybody even asking this question before).

Star Trek First Contact took place on April 5th 2063. The famous "Q-Who" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation took place in 2365 (and I'll explain why that's my reference point in a minute). So that means that we're dealing with a time period of about 302 years, during which humanity spread out into the stars to the point that Starfleet alone had hundreds of advanced starships moving throughout the cosmos, as well as civilian and (pre-TNG Federation replicator-time) commercial space traffic spanning much of those centuries, and a massive interstellar alliance being centred at Earth, during which those quantum torpedoes were just flying around waiting to be discovered.

So how weren't they? And if they were discovered before 2365, we've got ourselves an "Arnold's hand in Terminator 2" scenario here. Around 2366 Starfleet began a new prototype heavy warship that could be part of a battlefleet to defeat the Borg (who had been discovered in "Q-Who", and at the time of "The Best of Both Worlds" were inspiring new weapons systems). As well all know, that new prototype had some problems, the Enterprise-D not only defeated the Borg but apparently had turned all of them into individuals, and the battlefleet concept fell by the wayside. The prototype, known throughout the galaxy as Ben Sisko's Motherfucking Pimp Hand er, USS Defiant NX-74205, was eventually brought into service to deal with a new powerful threat.

The ship was the first in the Trek universe to use the dreaded quantum torpedo (as a fun aside, the "photon" is simply the quantum of the electromagnetic field, so going from "photon torpedo" to "quantum torpedo" is like changing the name of a submarine from "USS Los Angeles" to "USS city"), and its reasonable to assume the technology was one of the advanced anti-Borg weapons Shelby referenced in "The Best of Both Worlds".

It would be quite the coincidence if the Enterprise-E's quantum torpedoes were found just in time to develop new weapons in response to a new and unknown threat (and indeed were ironically the ones having the quantum torpedoes fired at them in the film). Then again, Terminator 2 similarly has too much weird coincidence that the liquid metal Terminator was sent back in time the same month that Cyberdyne systems made their big breakthroughs.