The Let's Play Archive

Master of Orion II

by nweismuller

Part 14: Heavy Lift Vehicles, Orbital Lighters, Freighters, and Communications Probes- Communications and Trade in Early FTL Societies

Heavy Lift Vehicles, Orbital Lighters, Freighters, and Communication Probes- Communications and Trade in Early FTL Society

Four basic technologies underlie many of the fundamental operations of any early faster-than-light society, over and beyond the obvious requirement of 'faster-than-light drives' themselves. These technologies are the heavy lift vehicle, the orbital lighter, the interstellar freighter, and the fast communication probe. Without any one of them, interstellar societies would falter, trade and travel choking off.

The heavy lift vehicle or 'heavy surface to orbit shuttle' is the workhorse of materials transfer in and out of planetary gravity wells. With a cargo area designed to accomodate a small load of standard shipping containers, a streamlined fuselage for atmospheric operations, and powerful thrusters, the HLV is designed to escape a gravity well and enter orbit with a cargo payload as efficiently as possible. Once in orbit, cargo transfer is accomplished by use of orbital lighters. These small craft, operated by either a single pilot or remote drone operation, are designed to latch onto cargo containers, safely and precisely shifting them between HLVs, freighters, and stations. Orbital lighters are generally directly hosted by a freighter or by an orbital station. Interstellar freighters are designed with a FTL drive system, enough crew facilities to support a small crew for the long haul of interstellar voyages, and a cavernous unpressurised cargo area. Some also add on passenger transport facilities. The fundamental design objective of an interstellar freighter is to reduce operating costs for extended voyages as low as possible while still maintaining the integrity to survive FTL travel. All three make for a cumbersome and rather expensive means to shift goods between gravity wells, but nonetheless some level of interplanetary and interstellar trade is viable even with this awkward system.

Meanwhile, the fast communications probe allows for information to be transferred considerably faster than either cargoes or persons between the stars. Ship drive systems are designed with the assumption that the ship and the drive should survive their journey, increasing cost and bulk and reducing possible FTL speed. By a series of design compromises, FTL speeds over 50 times those practically achievable by standard vessels can be effectively achieved by a stripped-down unmanned probe consisting of a power plant sufficient to run the drive system, a pre-programmed navigation system, the FTL drive itself, and a powerful radio transmitter attached to prerecorded data packages. Although the voyage effectively destroys both the power plant and drive system for future use, this can safely deliver the transmitter across interstellar distances, allowing messages packed with as much data as is needed to be transmitted in weeks rather than years. The travel lag between systems in FTL societies almost renders the interstellar trade needed to support a 'society' at this scale impossible- without the rapid communications permitted by these probes, it truly would be impossible. Despite the expense needed for these single-use probes, they remain the best means early FTL societies have to keep themselves connected and coherent.