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The (un)likelihood of extraterrestrial visitation is probably one of the
most debated aspects of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, the answer being
an essential component to the validity of the ETH. After all, the assumed
unlikeliness of interstellar travel has become the cornerstone of those
who resist the ETH as an explanation for UFOs. So, does extraterrestrial
visitation necessarily require all sorts of "unlikely" science, or is it
possible to accomplish interstellar travel using conventional wisdom?
"If we at once admit the foolishness of these perennially suggested
"impediments" to star flight, we will be on our way to understanding that
interstellar space does not need a bridge too far. Interstellar travel may
still be in its infancy, but adulthood is fast approaching, and our
descendants will someday see childhood's end".
Opinions on the practicality of interstellar travel diverge, but the
negative and positive opinions are seen to stem primarily from the
differences in background of those people doing the studies. SETI
researchers think that the degree of dispersion of stars throughout the
galaxy, combined with the limitations of interstellar travel as we
understand general relativity, effectively preclude the feasibility of
extraterrestrial visitation, thus believing that any extraterrestrial
intelligence would only be transmitting their love and good wishes to us.
The other group, largely composed of physicists and engineers involved in
propulsion research, tends to believe that interstellar travel is
difficult, but not a barrier, or not difficult at all once technology
progresses . Not surprisingly, the latter choice appears to be the most
Quite a number of clever designs have appeared in print, describing
various methods of getting mankind to the stars. These include such
projects as the star probe Daedalus, a robot interstellar vehicle designed
by members of the British Interplanetary Society which uses nuclear fusion
power, or interstellar ramjets which scoop up their fuel between the
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stars. Physicist Robert Forward, one of the leading experts on space
travel, has also proposed an entirely different method of interstellar
propulsion, using photon pressure to accelerate a vehicle to a significant
fraction of the speed of light in a few years. Such ships would appear as
huge sails, using the output of space-based orbital power platforms
(Beamed Power Propulsion) for acceleration, which would also eliminate the
need for an on board energy supply . Hence, much less mass would need
to be accelerated. The important point here, as astronomer Ian Crawford
notes, is that we "can already identify technological solutions to the
problem of interstellar travel that are consistent with the laws of
physics as we currently understand them. We do not need new physics" .
Another factor relevant to interstellar flight is that of relativistic
time dilation. Any object traveling close to the speed of light will be
subjected to effects predicted by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.
For example, a one-way trip to Alpha Centauri would take, assuming a
constant acceleration of 1g up to a high relativistic speed during the
first half of the flight and a constant deceleration of 1g during the
second half, only 3 years spaceship time, while 6 years will have passed
outside the spaceship.
Moreover, recent ideas on speculative space propulsion may just bring us
the breakthrough we've all been waiting for, making use of yet
undiscovered "loopholes" in physical laws, that would allow fast transit
between widely separated points in space-time. It might even be possible
to extract large quantities of energy from the zero point field (the
vacuum) itself. If this can be done in a practical way, then the energy
available to a space traveler could be essentially unlimited, eliminating
the need for an on board fuel supply .
Too Expensive? Although it simply is impossible to precisely now how
expensive interstellar travel would be for a civilization about which no
pertinent data is available to make an estimate, we can still make some
educated predictions. Interstellar travel appears not to be expensive for
an advanced economy whose productivity has grown steadily for millennia.
Therefore, alien contact by visitation is likely once these advanced
economies implement interstellar propulsion technologies at insignificant
costs relative to their wealth and capital stocks which have grown
steadily for millennia. Similarly, an interstellar transportation system
may seem expensive from our perspective, but, then, so would a 747 to the
So what is to be concluded from all of this? Is interstellar flight indeed
as "improbable" as the nay-sayers claim? Indeed, only if we grant them
their negative and self-defeating assumptions. And with that in mind, we
quote Ian Crawford from the October 1996 issue of the New Scientist, in
which he neatly outlined the current situation with regard to the
feasibility of interstellar travel:
"It seems unlikely that interstellar
spaceflight is impossible. Even today,
we can envisage propulsion strategies which
might make it possible to
reach between 10 and 20 per cent of the speed
of light, permitting travel
between nearby stars in a few decades. Any
civilization with this technology
would be able to colonize every planetary
system in the Galaxy in about 10
million years, which is only one-thousandth
of the age of the Galaxy"
Computer simulation and mathematical modeling of attempts to colonize the
galaxy show that this could be accomplished in no more than a few million
years. But the galaxy is ten billion years old, with second-generation
stars up to nine billion years old. Thus, the time needed to colonize the
galaxy is much shorter than the age of the galaxy. Moreover, in 1974,
physicist O'Neill published his research on space settlements, describing
large artificial structures capable of holding vast numbers of people.
O'Neill argued, with good reason, that such concepts could be realized
with current technology in just a few decades.
The consequences should be clear. There is no need to invent fantastic
propulsion systems such as "warp" or "hyper drives." Current available
technology would make it possible, in principle, to colonize the galaxy.
And this, coupled with earlier calculations on expansion rates, suggested
that if any extraterrestrial civilizations exist at all, they should have
visited our solar system by now. But there is no evidence of such
visitation to Earth. Enrico Fermi called this the "Where are they?"
question - which is now known as the Fermi Paradox.
Hart and other human-centrists such as physicist Frank Tipler believe it
proves us to be the only intelligent civilization in the galaxy, while
SETI researchers tend to see the Fermi Paradox as "proof" that
interstellar flight is entirely impossible. Another possibility is that
extraterrestrial civilizations are short-lived. If the lifetime of an
extraterrestrial civilization is only 50,000 years on average, nobody
would live long enough to colonize the whole galaxy. Most advanced
civilizations are concerned with "more important" matters and have not
developed any interest in space exploration. Earth is a colony because
the entire galaxy was colonized by one civilization long ago. Only they
now have a sense of benign paternalism to any developing civilization.
This is also known as the "Zoo Hypothesis," .
The problem with the first and second hypothesis, is that one would have
to assume it to be true for every extraterrestrial civilization. It may
very well be true in some cases, but hardly, without any exception at all,
in a million (which is a modest estimate of the number of advanced
extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy). Remember, only one
civilization is needed to colonize the entire galaxy.
It has also been suggested that extraterrestrial civilizations simply
haven't had enough time to find us yet. However, this appears unlikely
since it is quite possible to narrow down considerably the number of
stellar systems one would have to search to find life-bearing planets, by
making use of methodical search techniques based on known remote sensing
capabilities such as interferometry. Moreover, as Hart argued, "the
consideration that ETs have not yet had time to find earth is discounted
by calculations that show that another intelligent species in the Galaxy
would have found earth if their space exploration efforts began at least
two million years ago" .
Assessment of the feasibility of interstellar travel indicates that it
should be easily accomplished by an advanced society. Arguments, such as
that they would not have had enough time to find us yet because of the
number of stars to visit, are seen to be implausible. Neither technical
feasibility, nor energetics, economics, and social factors are likely to
prevent interstellar travel or slow the colonization of the galaxy. The
probabilities appear to be heavily in favor of aliens turning up on our
doorstep, if there were any aliens to do so.
Ball, J. A., "The Zoo Hypothesis," Icarus, Vol. 19, 1973, pp. 347-349.
Crawford, Ian A., "Interstellar Travel: A Review for Astronomers,"
Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 31, 1990, pp.
Crawford, Ian A., "Where are all the extraterrestrials?," New
Scientist, Oktober 1996.
Froning, H. D., "Use of Vacuum Energies for Interstellar Space Flight,"
of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 39, 1986, pp. 410-415.
Hart, M., "An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrials on
Earth," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society," Vol. 16,
1975, pp. 128-35.
Mallove, E. F., and Matloff, G. L., "The Starflight Handbook," Wiley
Science Editions, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1989.