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How Star Trek Transporters Work

Transporting really is the safest way to travel.
                          -Geordi La Forge

Star Trek transporters. One of the most iconic technologies in the entire Star Trek franchise, and all science fiction. Most people, even those who do not consider themselves fans, know the phrase, "Beam me up, Scotty".  It is arguably one of the most famous lines from a tv show ever. As a near instantaneous method for human beings, and objects, to travel short distances, these transporters provide an extremely important service for members of the federation, and the show writers.

The short answer:
Imaging scanners scan the subject's subatomic particles to get a perfect snapshot of what it is. The transporter then breaks down the subject into a bunch of particles which are stored below the transporter in the pattern buffer. The transporter system then sends the particles in a beam to the destination where the particles are put together using the data from the scan. The subject is constructed as a perfect copy of what entered the transporter. Do Star Trek transporters kill you?

The long answer from the TNG technical manual: 
Also known as the energy-matter scrambler, a typical transportation procedure can be broken into four stages of the sequence. 

Step 1
Transporter chiefs generally run all transporter operations due to its life critical operation. So, initially, Chief O'brien would program in the destination coordinates while the targeting scanners determine the range of transport and relative motion of the destination. Targeting scanners also verify suitable atmosphere conditions for the destination. During every transport, automatic diagnostics occur on the transporter system for verifications, for safety reasons.

Step 2
The molecular imaging scanners then scan the transport subject and obtain a real time quantum-resolution pattern image which is converted to a subatomically debonded matter stream by the energizing coils and phase transition coils. At this point, Heisenberg compensators take into account the position and direction of all subatomic particles composing the object or individual and created a map of the physical structure being disassembled, amounting to billions of kiloquads of data.

Step 3
This matter stream is then held in the pattern buffer, which is generally located directly under the transporter pads. This lets the transporter system compensate for the Doppler shift between the ship and destination, as well as function as a safety net in case transport needs to be stopped and moved to another functioning chamber.

Step 4
An annular confinement beam is used to actually transport the matter stream to the destination. There are 17 emitter pad arrays that create the annular confinement beam. Finally, the initial process was reversed and the away mission would be reassembled at the destination.

The chief would generally maintain a lock on members of away missions, in order to quickly beam them out if necessary, such as an emergency beam-out. Starfleet personnel combadges act as a tracking device for the transporter. Without the combadge, it's much more difficult for the operator to find and maintain a lock on a person. The transporter can scan for a bio-sign or energy signature, but it can't tell who they are locking on to, they can only tell that they are locked on to a life sign.

Source: Star Trek TNG Technical Manual


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