Terraformer Swarms

Terraforming replicator globules
Image from Anders Sandberg
A Stanleymiller Biogenesis ecoforming cluster about to seed the Mars-type planet New-Zeia (formerly YTS 3261-2610419-iv) with bionanotech replicator globules; Sagittarius Sector, Outer Volumes, 10192. Stanleymiller Biogenesis is one of a number of terraforming corporations opening up the sector's periphery to habitation.

Terraformer swarms are large swarms of self-replicating devices that travel in front of colonization fleets. They are usually carried within small seeding missiles that travel close to the speed of light, well ahead of the main colony ships. The seedtech or sporetech devices are usually embedded within a solid block of metal, concrete, diamondoid, or some other encapsulating material.

After decelerating to a suitable velocity (one that will not denature the founding sporetech or seedtech in the impact) the seeding missile slams into the ground of the target planet and is mostly vaporized in the process. This releases the nanites from their molecular cocoons and they then go to work making the planet habitable.

Terraformer swarms are highly adaptable and can perform any number of different modifications depending on the characteristics of the target planet. If the target world is an airless moon they will chemically strip-mine it for oxygen, nitrogen, and water and use these elements to generate a thick atmosphere and oxygen. If it is an Arean-class planet they will "chew apart" the polar ice caps, inducing a greenhouse effect. If it is a Cytherian planet they will lock most of the atmosphere up as carbonate rock and then break up the remaining carbon dioxide into water. Terraformer swarms can make virtually any world Gaian within certain hard limits: it must be within the life zone and it must be large enough to hold on to a thick atmosphere.

The amount of time required for terraforming may be anywhere between a few months to several decades, depending on the sophistication of the nanoswarm and the nature of the target world (obviously a mesoGaian planet will be much easier to terraform than a Cytherian planet). The limits of acceptable target worlds also varies depending upon the sophistication of the nanoswarm. God-tech nanoswarms employing magmatter can even create planets from scratch; transmuting the necessary elements from nebulae or the outer layers of stars. Such operations are rare, and normally performed when an Archai requires a planet that perfectly matches certain specifications. Such planets are sometimes used for experiments or special projects by the Archai, but it is generally thought that, for the most part, they constitute a form of perfect art. Such advanced nanoswarms can also ignite fusion inside gas giants outside the life zone, rendering their moons habitable. Obviously such feats are well outside the reach of terraformer swarms employing conventional nanotech.

Terraformer swarms have some limited potential military application, in that if introduced to a world where life already existed they will (except for the most sophisticated ones) consider such life to be raw materials for the generation of atmosphere, oceans, and soil and subject it to molecular disassembly (note that the seeding missiles are normally programmed to avoid planets which show signs of life). However, there are far more efficient means to kill planetary populations without destroying the planet (namely biotech weaponry and destructive nanoswarms specifically engineered for such a purpose). Also, terraformer swarms are deliberately designed to be easy to neutralise, in the event that an inhabited planet should accidentally be contaminated with them. Weaponizing them into a blue goo resistant form requires such radical restructuring of the assemblers that one might as well create a new assembler strain from scratch. Therefore they are rarely thought of as a weapon.

Terraformer swarms are widely used by many different polities, particularly the NoCoZo and the Zoeific Biopolity; and the simpler versions can be used, understood, and developed even by near-baselines. However, for various reasons many polities, particularly the MPA and their allies in the Sagittarius Transcultural Co-operation, who prefer to continue to use more labor-intensive methods.

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Development Notes
Text by Somes Jung Hallinan

Initially published on 09 July 2004.