A study published last month in The Astronomical Journal posits that intelligent extraterrestrial life could be taking its time to explore the galaxy, harnessing star systems’ movement to make star-hopping easier.
The work is a new response to a question known as the Fermi paradox, which asks why we haven’t detected signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
The paradox was first posed by the physicist Enrico Fermi, who famously asked, “Where is everybody?” I hypothosisize….Since no ther species have identified themselves to us, could it be due to a possible be a real Prime Directive in the Universe??
lthough the concept of the Prime Directive has been alluded to and paraphrased by many Star Trek characters during the television series and feature films, the actual directive has never been provided to viewers. The most complete attempts to define the directive have come from non-canonical works and include:
The Prime Directive prohibits Starfleet personnel and spacecraft from interfering in the normal development of any society, and mandates that any Starfleet vessel or crew member is expendable to prevent violation of this rule
As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Starfleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.
So far, we’ve detected about 4,000 planets outside our solar system, and none has been found to host life. But we haven’t looked that hard: There are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and even more planets. One recent study estimated that up to 10 billion of those planets could be Earth-like.
But that doesn’t mean they were never here, the authors of the new study said.
If an alien civilization came to Earth millions of years ago (the Earth is 4.5 billion years old), there might be no remaining signs of their visit, the authors wrote. They pointed to previous research suggesting that we may not be able to detect evidence of past alien visits.
It’s even possible that aliens have passed near Earth since we’ve been here, but decided not to visit. The paper called this the “Aurora effect,” named for Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “Aurora.”
What’s more, aliens might not want to visit a planet that already has life, the authors said. To assume that they would, they added, would be a “naive projection” of a human tendency to equate expansion with conquest.
The study accounted for all these considerations — the calculations assumed that alien civilizations would settle only a fraction of the habitable worlds they encountered.
Still, the researchers said, if there are enough habitable worlds, aliens could easily have spread across the galaxy by now.
For now, the researchers don’t think we should get discouraged by any perceived silence from the universe.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re alone,” Carroll-Nellenback said. “It just means that habitable planets are probably rare and hard to get to.”
In the next few years, our ability to detect and observe other potentially habitable planets is expected to improve dramatically as new telescopes get built and launched into space.
The Kepler telescope made leaps and bounds in the search for planets that might host life in our galaxy. In Earth’s orbit today, the Hubble Space Telescope and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite are continuing the search. NASA is also building the James Webb Space Telescope, which may be able to see as far through space and time as the Big Bang; it’s set to launch in 2021.
Of course, what would really improve scientists’ ability to estimate the probability that we’re alone in the universe would be more data on the speed or ranges of interstellar probes. A better sense of how long hypothetical alien civilizations last would be useful too.
If so many other civilizations exist in our galaxy, why haven’t we seen any traces of them? The oldest known star in the Milky Way is over 13.6 billion years old, meaning our Solar System, which formed “only” 4.6 billion years ago, is relatively young. In theory, there should exist numerous civilizations that are more technologically advanced than us.
And what do civilizations do? They colonize. They consume resources. They expand. An advanced civilization would no doubt colonize other planets as we, ourselves, are considering — and we’ve been sending objects into space for less than 100 years. A sufficiently advanced civilization can go on to harness the resources of its entire Solar System, then seek out others. Even without faster-than-light travel, it would only take an estimated 5 to 50 million years to colonize the galaxy. While that may seem long to us, 13.6 billion years affords enough time for this to have happened hundreds of times over.
Yet, we still haven’t uncovered any definite traces of the existence of other civilizations, be it a friendly visit or some artifact of a long-extinct alien race. So… where is everybody?
One possible answer lies in the lore of Star Trek, courtesy of the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets: the Prime Directive. Stay with me — this isn’t sci-fi hokum. Remember that Star Trek was able to predict the flip phone, tablet computer, Bluetooth headset, and other modern technology that was inconceivable to the everyman of the 1960s.
The Prime Directive prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with alien civilizations that have yet to develop the technology for interstellar spaceflight. The principle is grounded in the ethical argument that, for such a civilization, contact with an alien race or technology — or even the discovery that alien races exist — could be detrimental to the civilization’s development. Imagine if aliens had landed in Washington during the Cold War and met with the President — how do you think Russia would have reacted?
While the Prime Directive is a largely benevolent reason for an alien race to hide its existence from us, there exist plenty of other motivations: fear, indifference, or even indecisiveness. Hell, maybe all the civilizations out there have tuned into one of our currently trending reality TV shows and collectively decided that they don’t want to have anything to do with humans. Still, this would require that all other civilizations out there are united in their decision to hide their existence from us — and if Earth is any example, it’s difficult just to get different nations of the same species to agree on anything.
But maybe there is only one advanced civilization out there. Be it out of paranoia, expansionism, or aggression, it is entirely possible that there exists one superpower in our galaxy that eliminates any other civilization that evolves to a technological level at which it is perceived to be a threat. Maybe the Milky Way is home to an alien race similar to the Borg, which seeks out and assimilates species in pursuit of perfection, and we’ve simply been considered too inferior to be worth assimilating.
There are other possible explanations for the Fermi paradox. Maybe other civilizations exist, but there are technological or economical hurdles to galaxy-wide expansion that cannot be overcome. Maybe they are too far removed in either space or time to contact, living thousands of light-years away or having gone extinct millions of years ago. Maybe we currently lack the methods or technology to properly detect alien signals, which may be coming in in compressed data streams or at rates that are either too fast or too slow for our electronics to handle. Maybe they are so different from us that we don’t recognize or perceive their technology or communication attempts. Maybe we have been visited by aliens in the past, and early humans mistook these figures for deities. Maybe self-destruction is the nature of intelligent life, and the Milky Way is littered with the post-apocalyptic remains of dead civilizations just waiting to one day be discovered by us. Maybe the other civilizations in our galaxy are less technologically advanced than we are.
Or maybe, just maybe, in this seemingly endless universe of billions of galaxies, trillions of stars, and countless planets, we are, indeed, alone