It's the 22nd century and we have discovered a derelict alien craft somewhere in the Oort cloud. The craft contains a star chart showing its origin on an alien planet some 30 light years away. Let's say that with out current tech we can get there in about a 100 years, during which time passengers would be in cryostasis. As this is considered a milestone in human history, world governments collaborate (let's go with it) and decide to put together an expedition to the alien planet.

The plan is to get to the planet's orbit, and study and observe for as long as needed with drones, satellites, rovers etc. and see if there is indeed any life on the surface and if conditions are amenable to life. Eventually, we will land on the planet to get a closer look.

So with that said - what kind of scientists will be taken on such a trip? Off the top of my head, I'd imagine that given the prohibitive costs of the venture, you'd try and limit the total number of people you actually bring, and as such, you'd want generalists with a wide knowledge pool instead of niche specialists. Some professions I can think of:

  • Astrobiologists
  • Geologists - maybe a couple with expertise in both terrestrial and marine geology
  • Astrophysicists (and maybe someone with general physics knowledge)
  • Biochemistry specialists
  • Planetary climatologists
  • Paleontologists
  • Doctors/medical experts with virology expertise perhaps?
  • A few engineers for general technological expertise and troubleshooting
  • A team of security specialists, especially for when the surface mission is underway

Are the above sufficient? Too much, or too little? Anything else I may be missing?

  • $\begingroup$ is there intelligent life on said planet? if not a security specialist is useless. And you can add micro-biologist and ecologist. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 5, 2020 at 4:05
  • $\begingroup$ Is this an ancient derelict craft, and the planet appears dead when viewed from Earth, or bustling with live radio signals, etc? Linguist and people who've been working on the language that was decoded on the ship would be good to send to point of origin of the ship. $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    May 5, 2020 at 6:47
  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget that whoever will be there will be using theories and models which are 100 years old. For reference, compare the geology, biology and astrophysics of 1920 with those of 2020. Plaque tectonic, DNA and Big Bang model yet to come. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 5, 2020 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Faz If an alien spaceship came from the planet that is being investigated, either the alien civilization still exists on that planet, which case how they react to the expedition will determine the success of the expedition and the fate of its members, or else it will no longer be active on that planet, in which case searching that star system for other derelict space craft might be the best way to study the alien civilization. Ruins on the planet might have all weathered to dust by now. $\endgroup$ May 5, 2020 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ A psychologist, if Micheal Crichton is to be believed en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphere_(novel) $\endgroup$
    – DrMcCleod
    May 6, 2020 at 7:23

4 Answers 4


There's quite a few things to think about here, so I'll make some categories.

The Mission

Any scientific mission funded by government(s), which a mission of this magnitude would likely be heavily funded by multiple governments unless of course there is only one world government in the 2100s, requires a few set of prerequisite criteria which goes something like this:

1) A clear mission statement : Here's what we know and here is what we want to find out

2) A list of criteria which would define the minimum for success

3) A cost analysis

To tackle the first part, there's quite a few more details you'd want to think about in your prompt before thinking about the specialist you'd send on such a mission. First is this an attempt at first contact or not, is there a known alien civilization on this planet or not, have we made contact in the past or attempted to do so? 30 light years isn't very far on a astronomical scale so we would likely be able to tell whether there is an civilization living in this new solar system which is advanced enough to produce space craft capable of making it to the Oort cloud. The crew you'd send would be heavily dependent on all of the above factors. Since the last two parts of the three part criteria are all interconnected to the first part, I'll move on.

A data-collection mission

If the mission is about data collection, I'm going to have to disagree with the focus on specific scientists. Since data collection would be the objective, it is unlikely you'd want a bunch of specialized scientists. In previous missions, including the manned ones such as the Moon landings, the focus is on the technical expertise to complete the data collection itself, doing the actual science requires years and years of working with the data and is best done in the comfort of an office, not in situ. To further complicate this, presumably technology is better in the 2100s than it is today, since indicators of future technology point to highly advanced A.I. scientific specialists would become even less important. A.I. is great at recognizing patterns, sorting through, and quickly retrieving data, what it is not so great at (and with current technologies will never be great at) is being able to innovate to solve problems.

One of the presumptions for a data-collection mission (as opposed to making first contact) would be accessing the planet remotely. If the planet has a mass similar or larger than Earth, the easiest way to study it would be by taking images and spectral analysis from orbit, and only sending down probes for a closer look. Due to the difficulty in escaping the gravity of such a planet, it would not be advisable to land a craft capable of performing an interstellar journey. A lot of information can be gathered by orbiting a planet and observing the light reflected back from its surface. If specific features stand out, probes can be used to investigate these.

Planetary scientists and "image" scientists would be the the sort of specialist required for facilitating the data collection (I put image in quotes, not because it is not legitimate, it is, but because it is not very well known and will likely be called something different in the near future).

The main questions, if there is no intelligent aliens still there, is obviously why did the alien craft indicate this planet to be important. Why did they disappear, if they were there at all? If there is life, how advanced, and if there isn't life, was the planet ever capable of supporting life and if so, how long ago? These sort of questions can quite confidently be answered using the methods described above.

A first contact mission

This would be a whole nother game. Since there is no precedent for contacting alien life, the first question would be why wasn't it accomplished remotely. Presuming the long distance between Earth and this planet was the main culprit, the delegation for first contact would likely include looking for what kind of civilization this is, the level of hostility to expect and how to make contact in a non-threatening manner before considering, say, the biochemistry of the foliage on the planet.

The specialist for this mission would likely be staffing many more social scientists (sociologists and linguists), animal biologists and even possibly a few government officials before staffing biochemists and geologists.

Since there are so many ways this can go, there's not too much else that can be said without more information about what is already known about the planet and what is known about the alien craft.


Perhaps tghe best thing, given your advanced technology, would be to upload copies of all available scientist minds to a storage device, then download them as necessary to robot bodies when you reached the destination. That way you could have access to any disciplines needed without all the hassle of transporting thousands of bodies.

Of course, AIs should be vastly superior to any human mind by this time -- any singularity may have occurred a century previously -- so you may not need 'scientists' at all.


Your list makes a whole lot of sense but I will try to present a shorter one:

  • Geophysics
  • Astronomy with an eye to solar system/planet forming processes
  • Biochemistry/Biology
  • Anthropology/Soc. Sciences/Archeology/Sci-Fi nerds
  • Engineers/Designers of space ships and habitats etc.

Within each speciality you need first hand experience in data gathering, but also the scientific knack to formulate testable hypothesis from this data. Why?

Of yourse you can gather data, send it back to earth and 60+ years later you get questions and directions on what data to gather next. But the people doing the exploration should be able to do their own theorizing to better plan their experiments and observations. This Darwins expedition with the Beagle, not modern science where the astronomer has direct access to data from a telescope on the other side of the world (I imagine Astronomers have this. I actually don't know.)

Why these disciplines?

Geophysics - we want to understand the conditions and the history of the planets in the system we are looking at, because we assume that aliens evolved on and live on planets.

Astronomy - we want to understand what conditions likely formed this planet. Was there a late heavy bombardment? Was the local star always this hot or cold? What are likely compositions of the planets and gas giants cores, of asteroid belts and rings if any?

Biochemistry/Biology - to understand life or possibly life supporting conditions.

Social Sciences, Anthropology and Sci-Fi nerds: In case we encounter a society we want a structured approach to understanding this society. Also folks in these discplines can be good at poking holes into other peoples assumptions. The Sci Fi nerds (maybe just a good search engine + library) go along to suggest hints no one else thinks of - earth will have taken a specific technological path to arrive at this type of technology and in hindsight it all appears inevitable. This creates blind spots.

Engineers - will be needed to operate the craft anyway, but someone with lived experience in spacecraft building, interplanetary logistics etc. will be better at spotting or identifying logical orbits for shipyards, asteroid mining etc - they will also be more likely to miss these things if the aliens took totally different development paths. Maybe earth solved interplenary travel with cryostasis and slow cyclers, whilethe aliens are remarkable radiation proof and solved every problem with nuclear rockets.


The ship already taught us a lot

The mission is investigating not just suspected, but confirmed sentient extraterrestrial life in the form of a derelict spacecraft. The fact that they're going to a planet is almost secondary to the momentous discovery of the alien craft.

You need to decide how much has already been learned from that ship. How long since the ship was found is this mission taking place?

I submit it has to be years or decades later. In order to work out that the recovered star charts are, in fact, star charts, what did they have to do? It's a pretty safe bet these aliens' star charts won't be on anything like paper. They'll be in the ship's computer.

Information Xenotechnology

Reverse engineering how to get into an alien computer is no tricky feat. None of the existing computer technology we have will be the least bit useful. We'll have to reverse engineer everything.

We use base two arithmetic (high vs low voltage equals ones vs zeroes). There's no fundamental reason it has to be done that way; that's just a decision we made in the early days that now we're stuck with. They could use base seven, or if they're insane, analog. Our computers have a relatively small number of processing units that operate at blazing speed. Alien processors could be designed entirely differently, with thousands of slower processing units all operating in parallel. And when their computers talk to each other, it almost certainly is going to be nothing like TCP/IP.

So if you want human computers able to talk to alien computers (and you will), you're going to need network xenoengineers and xenocomputer programmers. Notably, you'll already have some very qualified folks from the process of going over the derelict. As for why you'd want this - surely there are diplomats on board this mission? You're at some point going to want to send a message to the effect of 'CITIZENS OF [Your planet here] WE COME IN PEACE', right?


Which brings me to linguists. You're going to want some, preferably the kind who learn a language or two every year just because it's fun. Alien languages are probably going to be just as difficult to work out as alien computers.

Again, in order to know where to send the mission, you've probably already cracked at least some fraction of some alien language, even if it is just enough to find the star chart files in the first place, and then decipher the charts.

Those folks are your de facto experts. Send some of them along.


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