Was Star Trek V on to something with the center of the galaxy revelation?

On the set of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, directed by William Shatner. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
On the set of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, directed by William Shatner. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images) /

Was Star Trek V onto something about the center of the Galaxy?

“The center of the Galaxy?” Captain Kirk (William Shatner) incredulously asks as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier nears its climax. Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), the charismatic, emotion-embracing Vulcan has just announced his intent to take the Enterprise through the “Great Barrier” at the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy to the mysterious planet, Sha Ka Ree. “The center of the Galaxy can’t be reached,” Kirk continues. “No ship has ever gone into the Great Barrier. No probe has ever returned.”

In Star Trek’s cosmology, the Milky Way Galaxy boasts energy barriers at not only its center but also its outer edges. The latter is as seen in the original series episodes “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “By Any Other Name,” and “Is There In Truth No Beauty?,” and in the Star Trek: Discovery episodes “Stormy Weather” and “The Galactic Barrier”). In contrast, we’ve seen the Great Barrier only in Star Trek V—so far. Given Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ tease of Sybok at the end of “The Serene Squall,” seeing it again, if only in Sybok’s visions, isn’t entirely out of the question.

Fortunately—or unfortunately, I suppose, depending on one’s perspective—neither of these energy barriers exists in the real Milky Way. And a supermassive black hole dubbed Sagittarius A* (“A-star”) occupies the Milky Way’s center, its intimidating mass equal to that of four million suns. It seems unlikely Sha Ka Ree or any other planet could exist near such a daunting quantum singularity.

The Memory Alpha wiki pedantically points out Sha Ka Ree isn’t explicitly said to be at the Milky Way’s center. However, Sybok’s exact line is, “Our destination: the planet Sha Ka Ree. It lies beyond the Great Barrier at the center of the Galaxy.” I contend, especially given Sha Ka Ree’s status in the story as the home of “God,” viewers are meant to infer the planet is at the galactic center, and Memory Alpha is splitting hairs. (In the finest Star Trek fan tradition, I add!)

Nevertheless, a real-world astronomical development concerning the center of the Galaxy could cause even Sybok’s rigidly logical half-brother Spock to raise an eyebrow in surprise.

Scientists are listening for intelligent life in the center of the Galaxy

On May 30, Cornell University astronomy graduate student Akshay Suresh and co-authors published a paper in The Astronomical Journal (a peer-reviewed scientific journal), “A 4–8 GHz Galactic Center Search for Periodic Technosignatures.”

The paper’s title doesn’t flow trippingly off the tongue for laypeople like myself. But Space.com contributor Stephanie Pappas gives us the paper’s intriguing upshot: “Could intelligent aliens be lurking at the heart of the Milky Way? A new search for extraterrestrial life aims to find out by listening for radio pulses from the center of our galaxy.”

Pappas goes on to explain that Suresh and other researchers

"developed software to detect . . . repetitive [radio pulse] frequency patterns and tested it on known pulsars to be sure it could pick up the narrow frequencies. These frequency ranges are very small, at about a tenth of the width of frequencies used by a typical FM radio station. The researchers then searched data from the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia using the method."

Now, the scientists are listening for signals in these narrow frequencies from the Milky Way Galaxy’s center, “dense with stars and potentially habitable exoplanets.” The program is part of the Breakthrough Listen project, “the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth.”

To be clear, despite the thrilling title of Pappas’s article, Breakthrough Listen has not detected repeated signals from our galaxy’s center—yet. But the algorithm it uses to sift through data for signals is only getting faster, and the listening will continue.

All Star Trek fans can say is: If intelligent life from the unreachable center of the Galaxy sends out a summons for a starship, we should be very cautious before answering!

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