Warp drive is the primary propulsive force behind most advanced space vessels, propelling them faster than the speed of light. The drive does this by generating warp fields to form a subspace bubble that envelops the starship, distorting the local spacetime continuum immediately around the ship and moving the starship at superluminal velocities. These velocities are referred to as warp factors.
Warp drive works by distorting the fabric of space to propel the vessel. Simply put, the drive "warps" space, both in front of and behind a starship, allowing it travel faster than the speed of light. Specifically, spacetime is contracted in front of the ship and expanded behind it. The starship itself rests in a warp bubble between the two spacetime distortions. This warped space, together with the region inside it, accelerates off at "warp speed" and the vessel then essentially "surfs" the wave in space-time created by this distortion.
Travel at velocities exceeding the speed of light is possible in this fashion because the starship is, strictly speaking, stationary (relative to the space inside the warp bubble) while spacetime itself is moving. Since spacetime itself is moving and the starship is not actually accelerating, it experiences no time dilation, allowing the passage of time inside the vessel to be the same as that outside the warp bubble. (ST novel: Captain's Blood) This results in a "rainbow" effect of visible light with stars streaking in all directions. The images of those stars wrapped around continuously, and distorted to viewers. (TOS novelization: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TOS novel: Ex Machina)
Modern Federation warp engines are fueled by the reaction of deuterium and anti-deuterium, mediated through an assembly of dilithium crystals, which are nonreactive with antimatter when subjected to high-frequency electromagnetic fields. This reaction produces a highly energetic plasma, called electro-plasma, which is channeled by magnetic conduits through the electro-plasma system (EPS). The warp plasma is funneled through plasma injectors into a series of field coils, usually located in remote warp nacelles, which generate the desired warp field. Other civilizations use different power sources, such as artificial quantum singularities, but the basic process is similar. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual). Due to the heavy interference generated by warp drive emissions, Galaxy-class vessels' long-range scanners are often limited. (TNG video game: Future's Past Super Nintendo Entertainment System)
Starships can engage their warp drives, while in the upper atmosphere of a planet, but the maneuver is very dangerous. To engage a warp drive in the lower atmosphere would be suicidal. When time traveling back to 1986, the HMS Bounty engaged the warp drive in Earth's upper atmosphere. (TOS novelization: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) Nearly twenty years earlier, the USS Enterprise had done the same in the upper stratosphere of planet Psi 2000-using the same time travel method-nonetheless. (TOS episode: "The Naked Time")
Every culture in the galaxy discovered warp drive at their own pace and rate of development. The Vulcans (and, by extension, the Romulans) had warp drive in the 3rd century, A.D. (Earth calendar) - although the technology was lost during that planet's civil war, and was not reacquired until several centuries later. They had reached the level of warp 7 by 2151 utilising coleopteric warp drive, whilst the Klingons had a capability of warp 6 by the same year, although it is unclear when their experiments with the drive began. (TOS novel: Strangers from the Sky, ENT episodes: "Broken Bow", "Unexpected", DTI novel: Forgotten History, TOS episode: "The Enterprise Incident")
Humans had achieved warp drive for the first time in 2063. By the early 22nd century, they reached the level of warp 2, and by 2151 fielded the Enterprise - which had an engine capable of warp 5. Ten years later, Humans had engines capable of sustaining warp 7. It was the rapid progress of Humanity which led to the wide-scale exploration of the galaxy and the formation of the United Federation of Planets.
The development of the warp drive is recognized by the United Federation of Planets as the marker of an advanced society. It is only after a people develop warp drive that the Federation will make contact, as codified in the Prime Directive. (ST reference: Star Charts)
Glimpses into alternate timelines and temporal anomalies have given Starfleet scientists the chance to see possible enhancements to the warp drive system. In a future glimpsed by Jean-Luc Picard, by 2395, the warp scale had been reworked again, allowing speeds of at least warp factor 13 (at least on board the USS Pasteur. (TNG episode: "All Good Things...")
Another glimpse into the future showed the crew of a future Enterprise exploring the galaxy and traveling at the speed of "Sidewarp Factor 55". The Captain ordered the helm to slow to warp speed, described as a virtual crawl, and eventually to sublight speed. (ST novel: Federation)
- Andorian : 2118 (Decipher RPG module: Worlds)
- Cardassian: 1620 (Last Unicorn RPG module: All Our Yesterdays: The Time Travel Sourcebook) though other sources indicate 1760. (Decipher RPG module: Worlds)
- Ferengi : 21st century, purchased from another alien race. (Decipher RPG module: Worlds)
- Human : 2063 by Zefram Cochrane. (TNG movie: Star Trek: First Contact)
- Klingon : 922 AD (ST reference: Star Charts)
- Tellarite : 1967 by Garas. (Decipher RPG module: Worlds)
- Vulcan : 1440 by T'Vran. (Last Unicorn RPG module: The Way of Kolinahr: The Vulcans)