In the episode First Contact, the Enterprise is in orbit around the planet Malcor III, a pre-warp society that is planning to launch their first warp-capable vessel in a year. The implication behind this would seem to be that the Malcorian are capable of launching objects into their own orbit and would also be able to detect objects in their planet's orbit as a result - if not by radio transmissions, then certainly visually as with telescopes. Meanwhile, the Enterprise is in orbit in order to make a careful first contact with the Malcorians and to locate an injured Commander Riker who was on the planet.

There are other episodes throughout Star Trek with similar setups (a starship in close proximity to a pre-warp society and forced to interact covertly), such as the Voyager episode Blink of an Eye where a pre-Renaissance society is able to detect and (mostly) identify Voyager throughout its accelerated development - first as merely a star, and then later as an actual object. In another Voyager episode Future's End, Voyager is sent back in time to 20th century Earth where a civilian astronomer is able to initially detect the ship in orbit because of its radioactive emissions. Granted, both of these involve scenarios where Voyager is damaged or trapped and not necessarily able to actively avoid detection, but it certainly demonstrates that detection is reasonable if the starship merely entered orbit and took no special precautions.

However, Federation vessels are not generally permitted to use cloaking technology to hide their presence. With regards to our own experience with the International Space Station, the ship could presumably be seen visually through telescopes (the ISS is about 110 meters across, while the Enterprise-D is at least 550 meters based on "twice the length... of the Constitution-class ships"). So absent a cloak, it would seem quite plausible for amateur astronomers to see a starship in orbit with a simple optical telescope, let alone any professional astronomers with much more advanced and powerful radiometric devices.

So what precautions or technologies does the Federation have to avoid detection of their starships by pre-warp societies in scenarios where they still need to interact with the planet and/or its societies? Specific concerns would be avoiding detection of their ship visually or by its radioactive emissions, or any other method we see a starship being inadvertently discovered by such.

EDIT/Clarification: There are some cases where the solution seems to be "Let them be seen, but hope that anyone who does will be dismissed as a conspiracy theorist", which was essentially the resolution from the First Contact episode. I'm interested in whether there are solutions that result in effectively perfect non-detection - such as the holographic "duck blinds" from Who Watches the Watchers - rather than just reducing the potential number of people who might have seen them without actually preventing it.

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    How often do we see a Federation ship over the nightside of a planet? The views from orbit are almost always of a daylight hemisphere. So they just need to orbit between the planet and its primary, where it's almost impossible to pick it out of the glare unless you're specifically looking for it. :)
    – DavidW
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 14:05
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    That's dangerous too, as if they are transiting in front of the star, they maybe spotted!
    – Hans Olo
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 15:28
  • @HansOlo they could just calculate their trajectory so they are never directly in the line of sight of the star from any point on the daylight hemisphere.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 16:25
  • Hiding behind a moon seems common
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 16:26
  • I seem to remember some hand-waving about the deflectors in TOS.
    – user888379
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 16:59

1 Answer 1


Note that Trek starships routinely occupy orbits that require constant thrust; if the engines fail, they often immediately start falling rather than simply carrying on like any object in a natural orbit. That would allow them to do things like constantly hide behind a natural satellite, or occupying a ridiculously low geostationary orbit over, say, an ocean, which cause them to be difficult to see as line of sight would be limited.

To give an example, the USS Whatever maintains an altitude of 150 km over the surface of an Earth-sized planet and is constantly thrusting to stay stationary over that location. At 150 km, the horizon is about 1390 km away, meaning you need to be that close or closer (at sea level) in order to have line of sight to the ship. Around Earth, if the ship was on the equator halfway between the Galapagos and Kitibati, ignoring ships, there's no one who could see it. They park themselves in the southern Indian Ocean, even the possibility of ships is practically negligible. As for aircraft, simply run dark and you're going to be hard to see unless they get really close.

  • And when the thrust fails as so often happens, the starship drifts over inhabited land? What then? Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 18:25
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    Don't you also have issues seeing anything yourself if you do that? Or can the scanners penetrate the planets?
    – kutschkem
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 19:58
  • While this may reduce the number of potential people that could see the starship, I don't know that it fits. All that this would do is reduced the number of people who could see the starship, but it hasn't actually prevented those people from seeing it or instruments from detecting it. Your "ignoring ships" caveat, I feel, is actually fatal to the idea and leaves the result to "let those who did see it be treated as conspiracy theorists." I added a clarification to my question to narrow in this detail. I'd like actual non-detection, not just minimizing the risk of it. Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 21:00

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