What If We Discovered an Abandoned Alien Planet? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
Imagine that you look through a telescope, focus on a planet, and Eureka! You've found it! An ALIEN WORLD! In this video, Unveiled asks what would happen if we discovered an abandoned alien planet? What would it mean for the future of humankind? And how would we track down the alien beings that had once lived there?

What If We Discovered an Abandoned Alien Planet?

In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered long markings on the surface of Mars, which he called canals. The astronomer Percival Lowell later theorized that they could be a sign of intelligent life on the planet… or perhaps they were all that was left of an ancient civilization from long ago. Schiaparelli’s markings were later shown to be nothing more than a shared illusion… but humankind has been searching for similar, tell-tale signs of alien activity ever since.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if we discovered an abandoned alien planet?

Is there, or isn’t there, alien life in the universe? It’s one of the greatest questions facing humankind in the twenty-first century. And the more advanced our technology becomes, the more feasible it is to search distant planets for those all-important signs of life. Today, there are organizations dedicated to making contact with extraterrestrials. NASA ranks locating other life as a high priority and is constantly cataloguing newly discovered exoplanets. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, has hundreds of scientists all over the world, continually researching the possibility of life in the cosmos and ways to find it. And then there’s Planet Patrol, a joint venture between NASA, the SETI Institute and a number of other groups, through which anyone can identify potentially habitable exoplanets. Planet Patrol is then compiling a database, as well as training artificial intelligence to also search for alien worlds - meaning the process is only going to get faster, become more efficient, and yield more results in the future. If there is alien life out there, then we’ve never been better equipped to find it.

Through these and other means, scientists and astronomers have so far confirmed more than four thousand exoplanets - some of which they realistically think life could survive on. But we might be just scratching the surface here. Data obtained from the Kepler space telescope, for example, estimates that there could actually be more than three hundred million habitable planets in just the Milky Way. That’s hundreds of millions of potential alien homes in our galaxy alone. And some of them are only a few dozen light years away… which is still an incredible distance, but it’s close enough to allow us to study them in relative detail. Zoom further out, though, and when we consider that these numbers relate just to our own galaxy, and that there are billions of galaxies other than this one in the wider universe, then the discovery of life can seem increasingly inevitable. But what if, when First Contact happens, life isn’t what we find?

Given that, whenever we view a planet, we’re only ever seeing it as it was however many millions of years in the past… that we’re only ever looking at just one moment on its own particular timeline in the universe… it’s statistically much more likely to find a world that’s pre or (in this case) post-­alien habitation. A world that once hosted aliens but doesn’t anymore. So, how would we go about making such a discovery? And how would we react once it was made?

Our best telescopes and research methods currently allow us to understand the atmospheric composition of a planet just by looking at it. We’re observing from a great distance, yes, but we can still ascertain which chemicals are present, and whether anything amounts to a potential alien signature. With the closer to home planets - those inside the solar system - we’re already taking the next step, with probes and orbiters and landers dispatched to take photos and gather samples. But, to ever definitively claim that any world - near or far - really is an abandoned alien outpost, we’ll need hard, physical evidence. We’ve seen in the past how markings on the surface of the moon or Mars have led to suggestions that alien life once lived there… but most of those irregularities have since been explained away. Let’s imagine that sometime in the future, though, a probe sent from Earth descends past the clouds of a far-off planet and immediately spots something incontestable. Clear and obvious proof that ET was here - like an abandoned city, or some kind of megastructure. What then?

It would be a momentous day for science. And arguably the most significant moment in modern human history. Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe, with various cosmologically tilted branches into fields like chemistry, biology and geology. So, for an astrobiologist, finding an abandoned alien planet is the holy grail of discoveries! If we were somehow able to retrieve samples - rock, water or microbial - we’d finally be able to begin figuring out just how an alien might work. Its chemical structure, its atmospheric needs, its body shape.

But, even if we only have visuals of a genuine alien planet to work from, we’d still be able to compare and contrast between how it appears to work and how human civilization works. Are there cities? Are there roads (to imply transport)? Are there buildings (to imply a need for homes and shelter)? Is there farming, and architecture, and art? We’d suddenly have another point of reference to compare ourselves to. Our way would no longer be the only way there is. Which would beg the question of whether the abandoned alien world provided evidence of a society better or worse off than ours? Were they more or less advanced than we are?

Architects and engineers would be drafted in to study material structures. To pick apart the alien designs of alien settlements, machines and technologies. Linguistic experts would decode any potential writing and communication systems, trying to determine a language. We’d quickly see the emergence of xenoarchaeology - the study of past alien civilizations - straight from the pages of science fiction and into the reality of everyday life. Everyone on Earth would now be interested in finding out as much about these lost aliens as possible, and the need for answers would unite every field of science and technology.

Two questions would probably take precedence over all others, though. Why was this planet abandoned? And where did the aliens that abandoned it go next?

In the quest to solve the puzzle as quickly as possible, we’d get more and more probes sent out to the planet, we’d aim all available telescopes at it, and the race would be on to devise a way to get a crewed mission from Earth onto the launchpad. Planetary protection guidelines would be more important than ever, though, to ensure no cross contamination between our two worlds. In the event that we could quickly send back-up from Earth, the abandoned planet would be treated with as much care as possible - as though it were a crime scene or an historical excavation site. We’d run reconnaissance missions to search for signs of a mass extinction, or a mass evacuation. Whatever lived on the planet, did it flee or did it die out? And, if it fled, did it do so suddenly and chaotically, or was it planned and methodical? The first would imply that it had faced some kind of disaster; the second would suggest that we were dealing with a majorly advanced species. One which could move between planets with ease.

It might not be so impossible for us to follow them, however. We’d now finally have another significant landmark in space besides Earth - this abandoned planet. So, we could treat this second location like a base, and work outwards to catch up with whatever once lived there. Using all of the information we could gain from the planet itself - especially the predicted technological capabilities of its past residents - we’d calculate how long the planet had been abandoned for, and then how far its abandoners could have travelled in any direction. Then we’d use our knowledge of the surrounding universe to pinpoint the likeliest planets or moons they may have headed for - paying particularly close attention to any we’d previously deemed to be potentially habitable. Simple. Quite what would happen if we did all of this and successfully tracked down a society of aliens on the run, however… is a question for another video!

Until then, finding an abandoned alien planet would mark a paradigm shift in human history. We won’t yet have made true First Contact, but we’ll have made a massive step towards it… and humankind would need to come to terms with proof that we really are not alone. Earth would no longer be the only planet with life, but one of at least two. And, from this point forward, the galaxy could open up to us. Humanity will have reached a higher level of understanding, and we’d now be on the scent of extraterrestrial intelligence… trying to retrace its footsteps across the cosmos, ready to make our presence known to it.

And that’s what would happen if we discovered an abandoned alien planet.