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Let's say the dots on Ceres are abandoned alien outposts.
Within the next 40-200 years humanity manages to send a team of research scientists to the location. The scientists quickly found a way inside the base and are researching for several years now but with only moderate success.

The aliens used comparable technology: e.g. hallways, doors, data and power lines running in walls, etc. but they have a techlevel of around +1000 years compared to where we are now.

How could the aliens unknowingly built their base (without using weapons or deathtraps) so that our research scientists will need a maximum amount of time?

I'm especially looking for facilities of incomprehensible functions and/or special areas/features built into the alien base.

EDIT:

Answers will be accepted based off of how scientific, and realistic they are.

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    $\begingroup$ As this is my first question here please feel free to give me tips and constructive criticism on how to do a better job of asking questions like this. Thank you very much. $\endgroup$ – CausticHarmony Mar 13 '15 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ This is an Idea Generation question as it stands. I think you have a good question in the making but it needs some rephrasing. $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Mar 13 '15 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ Much better, that's a good fit for the SE format now $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Mar 13 '15 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ I added the "features" requirement to your question as I think that is part of what you meant by areas. Feel free to delete my edit if it changed your question in a possibly unintended way. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Mar 13 '15 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @CausticHarmony If you put the @ sign in front of their username it will alert them to your comment. I would ask them to consider re opening it. I think this might still fall into the idea-generation category. Maybe edit to include on what basis you will accept answers. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Mar 13 '15 at 14:06

14 Answers 14

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A few options here...the alien could have a trait that makes then harder to interpret...there could have been natural events since the abandonment...or there can be outright technical issues.

Natural event

  • A CME from the sun struck the outpost shortly after it becoming abandoned and fried every last piece of unprotected wiring and electronic device. Now the scientists have to work with engineers to restore the wiring and get power to everything prior to researching whats on it. Anything critical can be protected, but having to get engineers in to replace wiring will extend the time needed.

  • Asteroid impact. A mission critical room cannot be accessed due to external damage (only hallway to a control room is collapsed and exposed to space). This now means construction time to repair this is required.

Alien trait

  • Use a sensory trait that is outside of our spectrum. For example, they are not extremely reliant on sight and therefore do not use monitors. Instead, they are capable of hearing sounds outside of the spectrum we can detect without aid to 'illustrate' a picture in their head for them. No monitors and only a sound frequency we can't hear that their mind turns into images would be exceedingly hard to figure out.

  • Bio-mechanics. Data is stored on living tissue written directly on to DNA that we don't understand. Aliens DNA must be sequenced prior to being able to understand the data.

  • Cybernetic. There is no obvious computer terminal, simply input ports that they access. When they are plugged in, all the data they require is displayed on their HUD display (or just in their eyesight if they are cybernetic). Without a method of plugging in, there really is no way to access any of the information on the ship.

  • Harsh atmosphere. The atmosphere in the outpost is automatically regulated to exactly what the aliens need. Monitoring systems automatically detect the ratio's of the elements and inject whats missing into the air as required. Aliens require something like Arsenic for their respiration, so something exceedingly toxic to us is injected into the atmosphere from time to time. If you prefer something less deadly, maybe the aliens can require nitrous oxide and that gets released into the air from time to time. High as a kite would be a good reason why researchers are slow.

  • Obscure recreation. Alien psychology is obsessed with tasks that while we consider it exceedingly tedious, they find it extremely relaxing. Scientists locate a large room full of marbles and presume these marbles fulfill some purpose such as fuel or currency when in fact it's simply a recreation room because they consider counting a hobby.

  • True space faring species. Humans have a very strong sense of up and down and a 3-d orientation in our head. A species that lacks gravity on an outpost like this can build the structure so no up and down really exists. Corridors can be non-flat and twisting in 3-d space...aliens consider it second nature, but a human raised on a planet with gravity would find it exceedingly disorienting.

Engineering:

  • Aliens don't use electricity (electrons), but instead use positrons (positricity?) flowing over a specially designed nano-fiber to power their equipment. Outpost no longer has reserves of positrons and they must be generated in order to work any electronic (positronic?) device.

  • No wiring. Future technology has discovered a method of 'charging' the entire base with the power it needs and electronics power themselves by draining the electricity (positricity?) from the walls as required. Of course the abandoned outpost is no longer charged...a scientist needs to figure out how this power is derived and then charge the walls for our own use.

  • Quantum computing. The processing power is mostly handled in dimensions not yet collapsed down to one. Our observing the Quantum computer collapses the multiple dimensions down, so the computer only works when it's not being observed (ha! K, I admit this one is abstract, I hope someone from the future fondly looks back at this line as retro-futurism)

  • non-binary computing. Their computer store data not in 1's and 0's, but as left/right, forward/backward, and up/down based on the bits orientation in 3-d space (a computer bit represents 2^3 possibilities). Nitpick accepted and changed

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this throughout comprehensive collection! The quantum computer got me - maybe one has to 'look away' to actually get something working. If you maybe could expand on this point this might be something really new. $\endgroup$ – CausticHarmony Mar 13 '15 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ Small nit-pick: Having left/right, forward/backward, and up/down only gives 2^3 possibilities. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Mar 13 '15 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @RobWatts - nitpick accepted and changed. Maybe the bit is actually held in 6 dimensional space and really is 2^6 while we can only perceive 2^3? Ha $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Mar 13 '15 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @CausticHarmony - That point was a bit further out there...Quantum mechanics includes the idea that many possibilities exist until an observer collapses them down to the one possibility it is. Opening up millions of possibilites, allowing each one to do a calculation, and then collapsing them to one is a potential use here (completely theoretic). Speculating on future technology has led to people in the 1970's thinking that we'd be living in mid air condo's with jet packs ala the Jetsons...I imagine I'm doing worse with this point. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Mar 13 '15 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ Uh... quantum computers already exist, are commercially available, and you can even play around on one remotely. This is well past theoretical and into practical engineering. (More generally, computation/mathematics/quantum physics aren't good sources for "alienness" because they're objective, and will be the same for us as for the aliens.) Also, whether you're looking at something has nothing to do with "observation"; misusing it in this way will lose you all of you hard-scifi points. $\endgroup$ – Leushenko Mar 15 '15 at 21:38
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On earth, we engineer objects to keep wild animals out - screens for insects, traps for rodents, child locks, lids and doors and all sorts of other things are designed to allow access uniquely tailored to our physiology - Upright, with oppose-able thumbs, at certain heights and ranges of motion.

What if the physiology of aliens is significantly different enough from ours that what they use as a door is simply inoperable for us? We just haven't figured out how to manipulate their "doorknobs" in such a way as to gain access!

For example: let's assume bilateral symmetry holds (It's mostly universal for life), but like in humans, it's single access symmetry (left/right). Now assume a different set of capabilities, like antennae or tentacles or additional hands. Manipulating a simple mechanical "knob" with features tailored to this biology would require unique actions hard to replicate for humans:

  1. Pushing the door while wiping antennae across the top
  2. Pushing your tentacle through a small opening to fill a cavity in the door and manipulate some switches
  3. extra joints/dexterity in the hands that makes human manipulation impossible - twisting 3 of your wrists in a specific upside-down and backwards simultaneously

Another example: Let's say they had specific pheromone glands that are used for communication. Doors would be keyed to a simple "speak friend and enter" passphrase - a standard knock. A child alien would easily learn how to modulate their pheromones to "knock" on any door as they grow up, but humans would find the system incredibly hard to replicate, even if we KNEW what we were looking for!

Or heck, even short range telepathy.

Edit: To add a bit to the telepathy, think fMRI, but biological (so short ranged focused magnetic sensitivity) Aliens can sense brain activity directly at short distances, and learn to control their own activity as an inaudible form of communication. Uncontrolled human brains would just present as static/animals to the scanner.

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    $\begingroup$ Telepathy has no scientific basis, the rest of this is a really good answer though :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 13 '15 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB I didn't notice the judging criteria in the OP. It was added in after I answered. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 13 '15 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB I added detail to provide a rational scientific basis for the telepathy concept. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 13 '15 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB: also, it does have scientific basis. We are made of molecules just like a cellphone is. There is nothing preventing the evolution of a species that is able to communicate their thoughts with each other using phone-like antennae. It would even be less complicated than some of our already existing biological processes, but less useful, hence why we don't have it (yet at least). $\endgroup$ – spacetime Mar 14 '15 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @spacetime creatures able to communicate with each other using radio (or magnetism, or whatever), sure. With unaugmented humans? No. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 14 '15 at 14:34
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Radiation

The aliens evolved on a planet around an extremely hot and bright star. They're used to far more radiation than humans are, and the lighting and design of the base take that into account. Work has to be done in protective gear at all times, and even then exposure requires shifts of less than 3 hours per day per person.

Gravity

The installations have some sort of artificial gravity generators, and the aliens liked it heavy. Human scientists need exoskeletons to operate in the 2G+ environment.

Water

The aliens are a water race. Significant portions of the base - more than half - are underwater, including most passages.

Size

The aliens were much shorter, or shaped significantly differently. They might mass as much as humans were, but think about a large centipede for example - they can use tunnels that are too narrow for a bipedal race. Most humans simply don't fit through the doors, and exploration has to be done with robots or by enlarging passageways (difficult and dangerous).

All of the Above

For super extra fun time, the sites alternate high radiation zones with underwater ones, all under a crushing 2.5G. Hallways and doors are just under 1-foot in diameter, and rooms themselves tend to cap out at ~2 feet unless equipment requires otherwise.

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    $\begingroup$ So it's like the water temple? Man, that's going to take forever. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 13 '15 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ Water would be a very good option especially for Ceres - which has under-ice water oceans. A bonus if the non-water rooms are filled with an appropriate atmosphere for the aliens, which happens to be corrosive for the plastic and rubbery parts of our typical underwater suits. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Mar 13 '15 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ Underwater combined with high gravity will cancel high gravity out due to buoyancy. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Mar 13 '15 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @MarchHo: To some extent, yes. But it gets ugly if you want to operate both in and out of the water, and if the water is deep at all you could see more issues with additional pressure. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 13 '15 at 22:28
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One person's life support is another person's deathtrap.

This can be played at several levels:

  • Shielding from "harmful" elements: there are robust, automated systems that keep e.g. water out of the facility. Unfortunately researchers are 70% water and they don't filter well. It can just beep and lock the doors, or separate the water, depending on how gory you want it to be. Other elements include microbial fauna or even gravity (less of an issue, but still interesting).
  • The atmosphere is kept at "safe" levels: here you can play with pressure, composition, temperature and even state of matter (underwater aliens?). Space suits are great, but not perfectly isolating. Too much pressure or a corrosive atmosphere can ruin someone's day. You can select between "lots of ammonia at 2 atm" to "core of a sun". Bonus points if the definition of "safe" changes throughout the day, requiring impossibly flexible/dynamic suits.
  • Every room has "electrical outlets": we need energy. They do too. We have easily accessible outlets that can electrocute the unaware. They do too. Multiply the energy output, or output something exotic, and put in a non-obvious location. Bonus points for motion activated wireless shocks.
  • "Medical" devices: devices for repairing biological damage are amazing. When you are actually damaged, and not just different. They can range from over-zealous robotic butlers all the way to omnipresent nanobots. Again, you can tweak the gory level.

This seems like a really fun idea full of potential.

Edit: extra ideas

  • Easily accessible "food": we need water, complex molecules and a bit of ultraviolet light. They need liquid helium, some truly scary compounds and lots of gamma radiation. All readily available, but in non-obvious ways (to us). Does this button open the door or sterilize the room?
  • Keeping the environment "safe": you don't want your precious atmosphere leaking, so doors are heavy duty stuff. Also, anything above 200 Kelvins is probably a fire and needs to be doused accordingly. Or anything below 300 K is obviously a leak and is to be "sealed" immediately.
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Probably the simplest "problem" is literally sitting right in front of you: writing. The screen you're looking at right now makes perfect sense to you because of familiarity, but to someone who has never been exposed to the English language, or even the Roman alphabet for that matter, in their entire life, figuring out even basic functionality would be a daunting task in the absence of an interpreter, even on something easily identifiable as a computer.

If I were an explorer, I would treat an unfamiliar computer with a great deal of respect/fear, on a similar level to an unexploded bomb. It could be a control system for something, and with wireless technology, it doesn't even have to be visibly connected to anything in order to cause unknown (and potentially dangerous) effects in the physical world. And if the aliens' society is even vaguely similar to our own, but more advanced, everything is going to be run by computers. If you don't know how to interact with it, you're not going to get very far!

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice suggestion, thank you! The comparison with the unexploded bomb is really something. Maybe we should put some more thought into the idea of 'cannot interact since you don't know it' but also the reverse would be true: if you don't interact with it you won't learn something. But you cannot just start pressing all the switches of course. So how could one even start? $\endgroup$ – CausticHarmony Mar 13 '15 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ @CausticHarmony: Very carefully. First, I would ensure that it's powered down, to the best of my ability to determine so, and then transport it to an isolated environment inside a mil-spec Faraday cage. Then I'd try to determine if it has an internal battery or requires external power, and try to figure out how to turn it on. (This might be non-obvious to an outsider; just consider modern power adapters where the volts/amps/hz/etc specs are clearly written in plain English on a sticker on the back of the "brick".) (more) $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Mar 13 '15 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ If I managed to get it powered up without frying it, I'd get a team of linguists, physicists and computer scientists to look at it and try to figure out what it does, though in all honesty I wouldn't have too much of a hope for success. The term "Rosetta Stone" has achieved iconic, metaphorical significance for a reason: that was literally what it took to figure out ancient Egyptian script! After the best linguists in the world spent decades beating their heads against the language fruitlessly, they only made progress when a translation key was essentially handed to them on a silver platter. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Mar 13 '15 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ That's much less of an issue now, computers can do statistical analyses in the blink of an eye that can extract meaning from a language that has never been seen before. For example it can tell you how words relate to each other, and attempt to tag words based on apparent function. From there you can derive similar words by how they are used. For example in most human languages all numbers are used in very similar contexts (i.e. anywhere 2 can be used, so can 500). With a large enough block of English and a large enough unrelated block of Chinese you can build a rudimentary translation engine. $\endgroup$ – jhoyla Mar 15 '15 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ That sentence is perfectly valid, and to a computer would certainly not cause any problems. For all you know Aliens do have 500 children and 499 spouses, adding cultural assumptions to your translation device clearly makes it worse. Of course, once you've identified the numbers putting them in order is a little trickier, but in general the smaller the number, the more frequently it's used, with some variation based on the base (so for humans we prefer to stick with multiples of 10). $\endgroup$ – jhoyla Mar 15 '15 at 20:41
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Complexity.

A typical elevator contains what would have been considered a high end computer only twenty years ago. All it really needs is a switch to make it go up/down, but general purpose computers are cheap and easy to use, so that is what we use.

The scientists have no way to tell the difference between a hyperdrive technical manual and an elevator button. Progress will be slow unless they get really, really lucky.

With a bit less luck, you get death traps without any special design effort - that airlock you thought was the front door is actually part of the garbage disposal system, and the circuit you just hacked into is not the one that opens the inner hatch...

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  • $\begingroup$ Aliens wouldn't put an airlock button next to the garbage disposal system for the same reason that we wouldn't. Complexity doesn't automatically mean it's a death trap. $\endgroup$ – Neil Mar 13 '15 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Neil: Do you have a garbage disposal in your sink? In the name of convenience, we put the switch that activates the whirling blades close enough to the disposal that a person could stick one hand in the unit and turn it on with the other. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Mar 13 '15 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler Good point, though that requires that you do two stupid things at the same time, something I highly doubt a scientist would do without at least first having tried the garbage disposal once. And while it may still be possible for a scientist or two to go out the airlock, I strongly doubt that an intelligent alien species would place that switch next to the garbage disposal for no apparent reason. $\endgroup$ – Neil Mar 16 '15 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Neil To the alien it would obviously be an incredibly stupid thing to do, but you don't have that knowledge. The blades are concealed for easy cleaning, so you think it is just a large drain. While reaching in after something, you can't see clearly enough and decide to turn on the light using the convenient switch nearby, since every other switch that looks like that just turns on a light. And that is when you can use the alien interface normally - it is even more dangerous when you have to create your own interface without understanding the necessary safety features. $\endgroup$ – Quentin Clarkson Mar 16 '15 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @QuentinClarkson So a trained scientist is going to flick a switch in an alien base hoping it is a light switch while he fumbles in a dark drain? I think making combinations of decisions that cause disaster would be long and inbetween. Now if there was an airlock button with no safety feature... Suffice to say, this is precisely the same type of safety measures we put in place to avoid disasters caused by people pressing buttons without knowing what they do. Doesn't always work though. ;) $\endgroup$ – Neil Mar 17 '15 at 9:00
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Logically, the most probable reason why progress would be slow would be if the outpost were protected in some way. If scientists had free access, progress would not be slow whatsoever, even if they didn't understand the technology behind it.

Scientists aren't dead, so there isn't a death trap surrounding the outpost. If there were, then the scientists avoided it, and so they somehow would have been able to get around it presumably. So it seems far more likely that we're talking about a barrier. An energy shield presumably takes energy to keep up, and if the alien outpost is long since abandoned, you're likely not going to find an energy shield up and running because that implies that not only is there a source of energy, that source of energy is constant and the plant converting that energy into something useable like electricity is still active without being monitored for presumably millions of years. Realistically not probable.

Therefore, my guess is that there is a physical barrier like a spherical wall protecting the outpost. That sounds rather simplistic for an advanced alien species, but consider the fact that mankind, despite having the technology to replace paper many times over, is still largely dependent on paper since making papyrus scrolls. Walls may not be interesting, but it is the most practical protection against the harshness of space and would allow an atmosphere contained within.

The aliens would have of course had a way of getting in and out, so I imagine there would be a gateway of some sort. However, how often would they need to walk on the surface of the planet? Likely not often. So it is likely that this gateway is large enough to allow the exit/entry of entire spaceships.

The reason behind the slow progress might be because the atmosphere is very much intact within the barrier. So while they could crack open the barrier:

  1. They don't know what type of atmopshere is underneath. It could be poisonous gas.
  2. The atmosphere could be under pressure, another good reason why you wouldn't want to simply break in.
  3. You risk contamination by the types of germs that you'd bring from earth. It could ruin any potential sensitive ecosystem under the surface.

Another reason why progress might be slow would be time interference. There might be a space-time effect surrounding the outpost that significantly slows down time for those inside. It might makes sense to do so, because ships leaving the outpost would seemingly return shortly afterwards and it means the aliens living within would prolong their lives. However it also means that spending say an hour near the outpost might be the equivalent of 8 hours to those outside it. Progress would literally be slow.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much, great suggestions! If the scientists could get into the base, what would then be the best way for the aliens to make sure nobody could just walk in and get to know all their technology? Just fyi I will rephrase my question in the next minutes (as required) but I really appreciate your work this far! $\endgroup$ – CausticHarmony Mar 13 '15 at 12:03
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Imagine your aliens had diffent eyes. Then it might be that the whole outpost is (and has to be, in order to function) filled with a dense fog. The aliens could still see and use the base, because they see infrared, and maybe even smell and hear their way around the base (much like dogs, maybe?), while humans, relying massively on eyesight, would be massively handicapped.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice answer, thank you! This will be especially true when you think about finding an empty structure. So your engineers will get it sealed and of course you would fill it with human-breathable air! One wouldn't necessarily even think about that the real atmosphere would need to be something totally different to get everything to work... $\endgroup$ – CausticHarmony Mar 13 '15 at 20:06
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I had some thoughts related to what @IsaacKotlicky said about having doors that are difficult to open. The main problem with having difficult doors is that one of the first things the scientists would do would be to replace the door mechanisms to make it easy for humans to use. That means difficult doors would only delay progress for a few days or weeks. So how do we make it so the difficult doors/mechanisms need to remain in place?

  • They grow back. The scientists tried to replace the door mechanisms when they first got there, but to their dismay they found that the original mechanisms grew back after a while. In fact, this could be how the entire outpost has survived - whether it's bio-engineering or nanobots or magic or whatever, there's something that automatically repairs any damage the outpost sustains.
  • Removing them would damage the outpost's integrity. The scientists found out that if they try to replace a door or its opening mechanism, it causes damage to the outpost that they can't mitigate. For example, it may be that the outpost needs to be pressurized a certain way in order for everything inside to work properly, and the scientists can't figure out how to replace the door mechanism without causing a loss in pressure that ruins everything in the room. This could be an interesting part of the story - there's one room full of now-useless equipment because they replaced the door mechanism. The scientists would lament the loss of potentially import data, causing them to be very hesitant to attempt replacing any other door mechanisms.
  • They can't figure out how to replace them. This could happen if the doors are made of an incredibly durable material that the scientists don't know how to cut through.

If you don't have something like this in place, then the doors will only be a short-term obstacle until the scientists can replace the outpost doors with ones they made for their own convenience. Also, tricky doors by themselves aren't going to hinder them too much - even if it takes half a day of work to open a door and go through before it closes again, the scientists can camp out wherever it is that they need to work so that they don't have to bother with the doors much. This could be an issue if you add in one of the things that @DanSmolinske mentioned - there is something in the outpost that prevents them from staying too long.

Another way to make the outpost difficult to research would be an extra spatial dimension. The aliens can naturally perceive and navigate the extra dimension, but the scientists are not so fortunate. Lacking the ability to move willfully along the extra dimension, the scientists drift back and forth along it. This will cause very bizarre behavior - sometimes you might walk down a hall only to find it ends abruptly, while other times that same hall opens up into a room. Or you could walk down the hall, walk back, and not return to where you started. If the drift along the extra dimension seems to be random, then it makes it even more difficult for them because they wouldn't even be able to develop rules like "On Thursdays this hall goes to room A, but on Fridays it goes to room B".

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We manage to use retinal scanning to secure bases and other places where most people aren't supposed to be. I would guess that given thousands of years more time than us to develop better technology they could have computers that require the DNA of a specific individual of their species. Since they are (most likely) using a different language than us, we will be hard pressed to hack their security systems, meaning we will not have access to any part of the base that requires DNA authentication without years and years of research.

Since the aliens likely have extremely different DNA, we would have to somehow analyze and reconstruct their entire DNA strand. After that, we would have to compensate for the EXTREMELY minuscule differences between the DNA of the individual aliens (since some of the aliens were permitted access to higher security levels and some were not).

All in all I can see this taking anywhere from decades to centuries depending on our tech level at the time compared to theirs, similarities and differences in our genetic structure compared to theirs, an whether or not any viable remains of the aliens are still on the base (to study their DNA structure).

Now, it is probably more likely that some general will see potential weapons for the base and quarantine it or simply blow open any doors with explosives, risking any specimens in the base in the name of "world peace".

Notes:

  • If I am correct we are already able to scan an individuals DNA and use the results for a variety of things, including encoding that specific DNA sequence into a lock.
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I'm going to assume that these bases have been abandoned for at least centuries in a rather hostile environment and operating. There must be a reason, and it might as well be one that fits your requirement for an obstacle as well.

OK, these bases are at least partly on the surface of an asteroid, and asteroid whose surface testifies to a long history of other rocks bumping into it with extreme prejudice, and it may have been there a long time. If any of it is in working order that would suggest that the aliens built things very, very ruggedly (making doors and walls that much harder to break through) or some kind of active upkeep. Maybe a anti-asteroid defense of some sort, either a force field or repulsion beam or whatnot.

Alternatively or in adddition, there could be robots repairing the base after collisions or breakdowns, and, of course, repairing each other. I'm not thinking sentient or sapient robots, but nevertheless very sophisticated ones. Even without the threat of asteroid impacts, imagining something as complex as just a power plant operating for centuries unattended would be pretty incredible, after all, and a whole outpost even more so.

Such robots wouldn't recognize humans or their equipment as either their masters (though trying "Klaatu! Barada nikto!" couldn't really hurt...) or as part of the base. If humans started damaging the outpost as they try to get in, the robots might want to remove the threat,and not necessarily gently... Even if the humans figured out how not to provoke the custodians, getting into the base and investigating without damaging anything would probably slow them down.

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Shortage of equipment

The scientists didn't know what to expect, and so failed to bring enough of the right equipment. This could be ropes, explosives, ladders, etc. Perhaps they are reduced to digging with shovels. Perhaps their scanners can't penetrate the ground.

Damage to equipment

Perhaps two of the three available space suits are damaged and can't be repaired. Only one scientist can go out at a time. Perhaps a crucial piece of equipment like a digger or vehicle has been lost down a ravine.

Orientation

The species is capable of climbing walls like a gecko or spider. Getting from one level to another involves scaffolding and ropes, which the scientists would have to get from Earth.

Flight

The alien species is avian. The outpost is on many levels and getting from one to another is tough.

Temperature

The species liked things very hot, or very cold. You need an environment suit, and it's dangerous enough that some scientists have died.

Walking distance

The base is extremely large and the suits the scientists have brought only have oxygen for 4 hours. This limits their activities within a 2 hour walk of the base.

Biological Debris

Perhaps death came swiftly to the aliens. Perhaps the major passages are blocked with bones.

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The odds are that if these bases are abandoned, they have been abandoned for a very long time, and anything that was working when the builders left is unlikely to still be working.

You have a base on an asteroid. Since the likelihood is that any sentient species requires an atmosphere to live in, and an asteroid has none, the atmosphere is likely to have leaked away. Since the base is in vacuum, we'd have vacuum-welding of the doors and other moving objects that weren't designed to spend a lot of time in vacuum. Computers would also break down from prolonged exposure to vacuum and any radiation that penetrates whatever shielding exists.

Then we have the issue of body form. There is no guarantee that the aliens who made these bases have a body even remotely like ours - their idea of a spacious hallway might be a couple of feet high and wide, or less. Possibly small enough that a human can't get into it at all. Or, they may have nice wide, high hallways, but no staircases since they can jump further than a human, and they come from a higher-gravity world.

Then there is the issue of manipulatory appendages - their appendages may be such that their user interfaces are not really operable by us, either too small or too big or just not shaped right. Imagine using a computer where you have to literally punch the keys - hard - in order to get them to work, because their makers were much bigger and stronger than us - and you have to punch more than one or two at once... Or imagine keys that you need to poke with the tip of a pen since they are so small...

Finally there is the issue of language. These aliens aren't going to speak English and write using the Latin alphabet. They could communicate by means we can't even perceive unaided, or if they do happen to have a human-perceptible means of communication, our brains aren't likely to have evolved to understand them. Humans have spent decades trying to understand other species such as elephants and dolphins communication, and these are terrestrial species. Do you think that an alien species - who isn't even there any more - would be easier or harder to understand?

Given the limitations above, it could take a whole team of scientists decades to properly investigate an alien base.

See the hard sci-fi Boundary series which has covered these topics.

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I know this is an old thread, but I thought I might add something. With advances in technology, or due to biology, they may not utilize sound for communication or even recognize it in a meaningful way. Imagine how frustrating it would be if most tech emitted sound that was exceedingly annoying to humans. Without protection, headaches would be the norm. Conversations would have to be held outside or in specific sound proofed locations. Working with each other on station would require physically getting someone's attention and then using some form of sign language or hand typed/written communication. Quite difficult if you are holding a wrench.

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