Romulan cloaking technology has been a reoccurring feature of the Star Trek universe ever since it was first described in this episode. Dangerous and unethical, the ability to cloak ships would give the offending party an unfair advantage in war, as well as the ability to carry out espionage without detection. It was up to Kirk to investigate this hostile new technology, by employing a bit of his own stealth. The captain had been feigning insanity before ordering the Enterprise to cross into the Romulan Neutral Zone. They are quickly detected, and the captain is brought aboard the Romulan flagship. The ploy was all a ruse to get Kirk, Spock, and McCoy onboard the Romulan ship to steal the cloaking device for Starfleet to study.
The story is based off a real-life event called the “Pueblo Incident”. In 1968, the American Navy ship USS Pueblo was tasked with gathering intelligence concerning the Soviet Navy and North Korea. They were detected and captured by North Korean forces and the crew was confined to a prisoner of war camp. Although both the Pueblo and the Enterprise were conducting dangerous espionage missions in enemy territory, the similarities end there. The Pueblo was on a general reconnaissance operation, while the Enterprise needed to intercept a potentially dangerous military technology. Crossing the Neutral Zone seems justified under these circumstances, because the ploy by the Romulans to create a technology which would give them an unfair advantage seems to threaten any non-aggression agreement. In this case, it becomes more of a battle to even the playing field once more. The sooner Kirk and crew can get a hold of the cloaking device, the sooner they can understand the technology and disarm it.
According to Star Trek lore, the fictional cloaking device works by generating an energy screen which disrupts enemy sensor detection. This description sounds more like the technology of a stealth jet than Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Stealth jets are built to disrupt sensors and radar as opposed to becoming invisible to the naked eye. However, on the show, ships using a cloaking device turn invisible, implying that the cloak can bend light within the visible spectrum as well as evading sensor detection. Real world cloaking technology is becoming a reality now, but such a broad range device would be difficult to achieve.
Cloaking abilities would be of particular interest to the military, and it just so happens the technology has been available in some forms. It is difficult to keep things hidden along the entire electromagnetic spectrum, but obscuring visibility within a limited bandwidth is possible. This makes the fictional Star Trek cloaking device less plausible because, for example, a ship that is undetectable in the visible spectrum could still be detected by infrared. There are many theoretical approaches behind cloaking materials, but the basic concept involves bending light around an object in a way that prevents the light from being detected. Other potential cloaking technologies involve material that can change color to imitate the surroundings, or an object shaped in such a way that a radar signal cannot reflect back to the sensor correctly.
Out of all these approaches, much of the current research is concentrated on metamaterials. These are a type of advanced synthesized material which is engineered to have properties beyond those of its natural state. This is usually achieved by adding repeating patterns of another substance, such as metal or plastic, on the surface of a carrier material. The ability of metamaterials to alter optical physics creates exciting possibilities for their applications. When it comes to cloaking technology, metamaterials are engineered to bend light around an object. For example, specially shaped carbon nanotubes can be heated to high enough temperatures that they create a gradient in the surrounding air layers. This temperature gradient bends light waves away from an object, obscuring it in the same way a mirage creates an illusion in the heat.
The technology to create invisibility superpowers is just beginning to emerge, but we are still far from a broad range Romulan cloaking device. Even the Enterprise mission was just a small victory in the battle of escalating military innovation. Although Kirk and crew were successful in their mission, any advantage that Starfleet gains by studying the device is fleeting as the Romulans adapt to the new circumstances. In the game of war, technology marches on, and the latest innovation might be hiding in plain sight.
Chen, P. Y., Soric, J., & Alù, A. (2012). Invisibility and cloaking based on scattering cancellation. Advanced Materials, 24 (44).