It’s late in the day, and a research intern at NASA is reviewing the latest observation reports from the space telescope being used to study Kuiper Belt objects, when she comes across an anomalous reading flagged by the image analysis software.

She checks the time. If she leaves now, she can avoid the worst of rush hour, but her week-long vacation starts tomorrow, and her boss won’t be happy if a problem with the imaging system remains unreported until she gets back.

With a sigh, she turns her monitor back on and calls up the flagged images to investigate. She quickly eliminates the most likely causes of the anomalous reading–a bug in the software, a stray cosmic ray hitting the detector. It’s still probably a false alarm, but there’s no harm in following protocol, so she sends an email to her colleagues asking them to investigate the anomaly further.

As luck would have it, this time it is something unusual, and by the time the intern returns from her vacation, the entire world is afire with speculation about the unidentified object that isn’t behaving the way Kuiper Belt objects should. It’s in the wrong place, it’s far too bright, but most unusual of all, it’s slowing down.

And so, a discovery that begins as a single line in an automated daily operations report, blows up into a storm of headlines across the globe and the questions on everyone’s lips are “Who are they, and why are they here?”

The top priority for space agencies like NASA and the ESA will be to discover all they can about the approaching object. Hubble’s venerable eye will be trained upon it, along with every large optical and radio telescope on Earth, in the hope of determining the object’s nature, size, capabilities, and whether it has someone on board trying to contact us.

No doubt, out of an abundance of caution, world leaders will charge their military commanders to come up with contingency plans in case the aliens turn out to be hostile, and the world’s media will be consumed by speculation about the intentions of our interstellar visitors. In the face of the unknown, every scenario from the most optimistic to the most disastrous will be examined in excruciating detail in the months before the ship finally enters orbit around Earth.

Of course, even after every prediction and prognostication has been analyzed to death, one critical question will remain unanswered.

“Are we doomed?”

My prediction, should this ever happen? Almost certainly not.

Maybe I’m an optimist, but out of all the possible reasons an alien civilization might want to embark on a long and arduous voyage between the stars, I find scenarios where they are bent upon subjugating or destroying the living worlds they encounter to be among the least plausible.

A common theme found in science fiction is one of alien conquest. Earth comes under the thrall of a powerful alien race and is enslaved and plundered of its valuable resources. It is also a familiar scenario to anyone who has studied the history of human exploration and colonization. Time and again, more primitive civilizations have been plundered and devastated by technologically superior forces. It is a legacy that some parts of the world are still struggling to recover from today.

But does this scenario really translate to the realm of interstellar travel? Personally, I doubt it. There are some key differences which means that it is very unlikely for history to repeat itself on a galactic scale:

  1. Barriers to entry. While embarking on an ocean-spanning voyage in the Middle Ages was undoubtedly an expensive and high risk endeavor, it pales in comparison with the barriers facing any space-faring civilization seeking to cross many light-years of interstellar space.

    Even before you consider the difficulty of a decades-long trip through the interstellar void, the technological know-how and resources required to build ships capable of making the journey would likely be far beyond anything, say, a group of privateers or profit-seeking consortium could put together. It would take the combined resources of a mature technological civilization to do it, and even then, they would be very reluctant to expend such vast amounts of capital on a what would be a high risk venture that would take decades, if not centuries to bear fruit.

    Therefore, the odds of a number of competing government or private interests embarking on a race to control and plunder the resources of the surrounding life-bearing worlds, as happened during colonial times here on Earth, are extremely low.

  2. Abundance of natural resources. One of the more realistic (or perhaps, one of the least unrealistic) attempts to justify the need for interstellar exploitation of a life-bearing planet can be found in the movie Avatar, but even then, the writers had to invent an incredibly rare and valuable element, called unobtainium, as justification for the extreme costs of setting up an interstellar mining operation.

    In reality, the natural resources needed by technological civilizations can be found all over the place. Any star system with a life-bearing planet will almost certainly contain a profusion of other heavenly bodies–gas giants, rocky planets, planetoids, moons, comets, and asteroids. Together, they will have most, if not all, the resources a visiting alien force needs for survival–heavy elements, minerals, gases, water, etc.–all of which can be extracted without any need to visit, let alone ravage, the one life-bearing planet in the star system.

    Even if it is organic material they’re after, it seems unlikely they would need, or even want, more than samples for their collection. When mass and energy are at a premium, you don’t want huge collections of flora and fauna weighing down your ships.

    Finally, an interstellar mission is extremely unlikely to be dependent on finding an exploitable food source at their destination. That would be an inordinately foolish risk to take.

  3. Automation and Robotics. But what if the resources the aliens are looking for are the intelligent beings themselves? Maybe they want to exploit us in some way, perhaps as slaves to wait upon them hand and foot.

    It’s certainly possible, but again, why would they go to all the trouble of subjugating a planet and enslaving its surly rebellious population, when automated solutions, like computers, robots, and artificial intelligence can do the same job much more efficiently and effectively, and without any risk that they will go on strike, steal from you, kill you, or start an uprising?

  4. A Common Heritage. Some argue that our interstellar visitors might be so alien that they do not even recognize us as an intelligent species. Perhaps they are so advanced that we will be as insignificant to them as ants are to us–i.e. pests to be eradicated or specimens to be experimented upon, or maybe not even that.

    Given we only have a sample of one to work with–ourselves–it’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusion on this issue, but I would argue that we’re likely to have far more in common with our alien visitors than we might think. After all, we’re all products of the same universe. We’re all governed by the same laws of physics, and we all have the same obstacles to overcome before becoming space-faring species. As far as we know, there are no short-cuts, no alternative routes. Everyone has to develop the same understanding of science and engineering that we do.

    And we have only made it this far, scientifically and technologically, thanks to our intelligence, drive, ingenuity, and most important of all, our ability to work together. Without these things, it’s hard to see how an intelligent species could rise to the challenge of creating a civilization capable of escaping the clutches of their home planet.

    So, I would expect space-faring species will understand each other to a significant degree, even if the details and motivations are different. We will still be alien to one another, no doubt, but not that alien.

  5. Cultural Differences. And, in the end, it could be our unique heritage and perspective that is our most valuable asset for any visiting aliens. There is almost certainly nothing we can teach an advanced alien civilization about the physical universe. “Been there, done that,” would be their reply if we tried.

    But when it comes to our history, our culture, and our imagination, they are ours alone. There will be plenty of common themes, no doubt, but no other civilization has had a Roman Empire, or a William Shakespeare, or plays cricket, or makes video games about angry birds. To destroy us would be to kill the goose that lays a thousand golden eggs. To any sufficiently advanced alien civilization jaded by the sameness of the universe, our unique experiences would come as a breath of fresh air.

I’m not saying that if Earth is ever visited by an interstellar-capable alien race, they’re definitely not going to be hostile. In the absence of any relevant information, anything is possible. But I believe, for the reasons I outline above, the odds are very good that should intelligent aliens ever arrive on our own doorstep, we will have little to fear from them.

But what if I’m wrong? What if we are faced with an implacably hostile alien foe? Is it something we should be preparing for, just in case? I explore the possibility in the next part of the series, Nowhere To Run.

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