Interstellar Colonization

Dyaush 2
Image from Steve Bowers

A Dyaush-class interstellar colony ship; long and thin, to reduce impacts with the interstellar medium

Interstellar colonisation is an ancient dream. As early as the 20th century c.e. (1st century BT) visionaries debated how to reach the stars, but the practical achievement of interstellar colonies had to wait several centuries more, and remained a highly uncertain venture for almost two millennia afterward. Even today, with ten millennia of experience and technology the ancients would not have dreamt of, interstellar colonisation remains an expensive and sometimes controversial venture.

Despite the aid of data from the occasional interstellar probe and high-resolution imagery from space telescopes, the Interplanetary Age produced only a few of colonies, and of those even fewer - Nova Terra and Penglai are examples — were successful. There were two primary reasons for the dearth of interstellar colony attempts at the time. The first of these was technical: starships of sufficient speed, reliability and colony capacity could not be built. The second reason was economic: the megacorps and interplanetary powers were far too busy exploiting the solar system and its resources to "waste" money on "blue-sky" projects. Significant interstellar colonisation was not achieved until the 400's, in the short so-called "Nanotech Window" when nanotechnology enabled the construction of ships with sufficient power, size, repair capability and construction ability to make attempts to reach another solar system technically feasible.

Even given technical feasibility, colonisation was still not a high priority project. The megacorps recognised the interest from many groups, but could see only limited benefits for themselves from interstellar colonisation: each venture would be a multi-century investment, and that would involve creating a new economy at a remote world from scratch and then only lead to very limited trade income given that interstellar transports were extremely slow and costly and that even communication was subject to enormous delays. Most analysis suggested that as technology advanced future ships would become faster and better, and it would be a smarter strategy to wait a few decades and reap the benefits of the fast economic growth of the Nanotech Age before funding interstellar colonies. At the same time though, large social segments systemwide believed interstellar colonisation was the key to freedom and future autonomy. Hence, many of the governments began to ponder the possibility of doing interstellar colonisation for political rather than economic reasons: enhancing civic pride, or getting rid of many of the would-be troublemakers, or making the megacorps happy with large pork-barrel projects. Slowly, the colony projects gained momentum, and a number of highly publicised and sometimes highly controversial colony projects were launched outwards.

The Nanotech Window was only open for a brief time. There was a final flurry of activity when in the opening years of the Nanodisaster, as various groups attempted to escape the oncoming disorder, and another major set of expeditions backed by GAIA as part of the Great Expulsion, but no further attempts are known from the ensuing Dark Ages, and colonisation did not resume until the First Federation era. This time the reasons for interstellar colonisation were stronger. The solar system was experiencing a major economic and social boom, but it was clear that resources were running out, and habitat space was not growing fast enough for the booming population. The Federation's strict limits on new technologies, especially neumann-capable nanotech, hampered the solution to this problem, and was a brake on market growth in general. Hence, aside from the simple press of population many organisations saw interstellar colonisation as a way not only to gaining access to resources but to exploit the potential of technology more freely. Other another strong reasons for colonisation were safety (many feared the return of a new Dark Age) or a desire to escape the fierce competition of the solar system.

The new colonisation ventures had profound political effects over the long term. One was the gradual dissolution of the Federation as a social and political force, as more and more activity went on outside Solsys. Another effect was the immense broadening of corporate time scales. The AI-supported hypereconomy was stable and to a large extent predictable, and the colony projects would lead to multi-decade planning horizons. While a long range plan of the Information or first Interplanetary ages could have been five years, now fifty or a hundred years became a rational planning timescale. By putting more and more decision making and management power into the hands of the immortal and reliable AIs, corporations could manage even multi-century operations without any risk of losing control. Also, company policy could not be allowed to change too quickly, or the projects would go haywire due to communications lags. This was the first step along the road which eventually led to the Age of Empires and the transformation of the megacorps into hereditary houses.

The selection of colonisation targets was based on several factors, but distance, the presence of suitable asteroid/kuiper belts and the presence of habitable/terraformable planets were, in that order, the most important. Distance limited the response times of the organisation; early 0.1c spaceflight involved decades-long turn-around times for even the most nearby systems. Easily accessible orbital resources were the reason systems such as Lalande 21185 and Barnard quickly became important, while Wolf 359 and Ross 128 languished (also, the lack of volatiles at Barnard eventually led to its decline). As for habitable planets, terraforming had to compete with tweak adaptation in the initial era. Terraforming was a good long-term investment, but adapting tweaks or exploiting the bewildering array of clades of the solar system proved to give a much faster benefit (as Gordan Salam, a Jupiter Transsystem executive famously remarked, "Whatever the environment, you will find that someone once had the idea to tweak their children to live there for whatever ridiculous reason. Let's hire them!").

The introduction of faster spaceflight changed the pattern, turning up the interest for terraformable planets around sun-like stars and making distance less essential. Terraforming rose to prominence, but still required ever longer time scales of planning. Terraforming has never been a fast process unless done with extreme amounts of expensive technology. Low-tech terraforming can take many centuries, the nanotech "InstaPlanet" systems of the First Federation could act within a few decades and the most dramatic (and uneconomical) "Genesis" systems of the early Imperial era within a few years. The main limitations were energy, coordination and heat dissipation, and it was soon found that advanced AI was necessary to make the process economical.

Terraforming investments in the late First Federation proved to be one of the most profitable forms of long-term investments ever. By sending a terraforming team to a planet a nearly worthless chunk of rock could be turned into prime colonisation and economic growth territory within a century or two (by now an ordinary investment horizon for corporations and long-lived individuals). The value of the planet would in turn increase nearly exponentially - apparently forever. Terraforming and colonisation funds became funds of choice, and accelerated the colonisation process as they in turn invested in more colonisation ventures.

The introduction of wormholes in the late First Federation era led to the drastic change in colonisation strategy. Previously colonisable systems had to be selected carefully, a colonisation fleet sent out and centuries could pass before the colony would bear profit. Now a linelayer ship could be launched and distribute wormholes along a route, enabling the fast access of highly skilled colonisation, terraformer and marketing professionals to the system once access had been achieved. While before joint-venture colonisation was common, now ownership of whole systems could be claimed. This in turn led to the emergence of the Empires (as well as other factors): groups controlling the colonisation process gained tremendous direct political, economic and informational influence over their colonies, enabling the formation of the empires. During this era Cygexpa, the Taurus Nexus and the Conver Ambi emerged as the logical result of mergers between the Terraforming Funds.

Over time colonisation began to develop a stable dynamic. A vast wave of exploration and surveying probes expanded at near lightspeed outwards, relaying their information back to their owners through encrypted message packages. Interesting systems were visited by linelayer ships and attached to the wormhole nexus. Many systems were selected as wormhole outposts with receiver arrays just to keep near to the information front (a delay in receiving a tip about a good system could mean that a competitor got there first). The linked systems were then developed as before, but by now the technologies were standardised and routine. One result was the tree-like spread of empires, with wormhole networks radiating away from Weylforge systems into the frontier. Large volumes were left untouched as too far from any suitable linelayer or too uninteresting; in these volumes other empires and independent worlds sometimes appeared.

  • Backscattering Waves  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev and Steve Bowers
    Some colonies themselves send out waves of colonsation, which may come into conflict with other waves from the original source.
  • Blazer, Deeper  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Pre-nanoswarm terms for pioneers and adventurers who sort to explore and develop "deep space" (hence "deeper") and "blaze a trail" (archaic expression - origin unknown) out beyond CisLunar space, Mars, the Belt and the main population hubs.
  • Colonist  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Sophont being who leaves eir homeworld to colonize a new solar system.
  • Colony - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Dependent member of a larger polity or empire. It is ruled by the parent polity, usually through a governor or colonial administration AI. The colonists may have an elected council to petition the governor, or an elected or chosen representative in the parent polity or empire, but they have no say in their own government. Colonies may be established as part of an expansionist drive by the parent polity or empire, or they may be regions that already have a society but were technological inferior and hence easily conquered. Colonies tend to be less organized and with less government (less infrastructure, luxury items, no welfare services or angelnets, etc.) than the parent polity. See also territory, protectorate.
  • Colony Ships  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Terragens, and in the past some xenosophonts, have used a number of different kinds of strategies to establish colonies across interstellar distances. The resulting ships range from gigantic and slow generation ships to much smaller data-only ships.
  • Destrada Incident  - Text by John B
    The subrelativistic explorer ship Destrada lost in transit because of hardware incompatibility.
  • Diademata, The  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Halo drive Colony ship, launched from Corona in 9255
  • Diaspora, Human - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    [1] The history and condition of humanity following the Great Expulsion.
    [2] humanity (or biont terragens in general) as a starfaring race scattered among the stars.
  • Dyaush Interstellar Colony Ship  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Early interstellar colony ship
  • Early Interstellar Colonists  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Without the vision and sacrifices of the hardy and courageous colonists, humankind would never have left the safety of Earth. Leaving aside the early government and megacorporate projects during the 1st century a.t. (21st century c.e.), which were very cost intensive and only involved very few individuals, six main phases of deep space can be discerned: the Interplanetary, the Nanotech Window, the mostly early First Federation period of private initiative, the Middle to Late First Federation period of megacorp colonisation, the Age of Expansion, and the post-Expansion Age Adventurers.
  • Encyclopaedia Everythingiana, The  - Text by Anders Sandberg
    A bootstrap database for lost or abandoned societies.
  • Eridanus League, The  - Text by Aaron Hamilton, adapted by Steve Bowers
    Early Interstellar Empire, informally aligned with the First Federation.
  • Exploration, Interstellar  - Text by Todd Drashner, with comments by Steve Bowers
    Interstellar Exploration, especially by the Sephirotics, involves a number of progressive stages.
  • Explorer Class  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Long range, rugged and reliable self-repairing amat-powered exploration vessel used during the First Federation period. Some remained in service as late as the Empires age, and even today Explorer Class vessels little different from the original design are popular among many minor and independent clades, especially in the outer volumes.
  • Far Edge Party   - Text by Steve Bowers
    Many explorers who exist in multiple copies arrange to meet at distant locations to exchange information and memories. These meetings are traditionally called 'Far Edge Parties', as they are supposed to occur at the 'far edge of the galaxy', although to date no exploration ships have reached that far.
  • Feral - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    [1] A sapient being that seeks to live free of hyperturing supervision. As used by those who do not, this usually associated with romantic or shock-value associated memes of unpredictability, aggressiveness, lack of hygiene, baseline atavism, etcetera.
    [2] Generic term for modosophont rogues and malcontents, either dangerous or potentially so to other sapients. Some live a degraded existence in their biospheres and ships (not having the resources of the AIs, the adaptability of the tweaks, the ability of the cyborgs, or the comfort of the AI-devotee nearbaselines). Others, with access to ships, become pirates, black marketeers, and petty thugs.
  • Galactic Colonisation Board - Text by Steve Bowers
    A quasi-religious body responsible for coordinating the exploration of the Outer Volumes (under divine guidance from the Sephirotic Archailects and their representatives). Currently based on Cythera.
  • Generation Ship  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Huge, slow, self-contained interstellar ships taking more than one lifetime to arrive
  • Great Expulsion, The  - Text by M Alan Kazlev, amended by Steve Bowers
    Five and a half billion people are expelled from Earth by the newly ascended Goddess GAIA.
  • Historical Diaconcentrism - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    The tendency for the peripheral regions to be historically and technologically backward - "living fossils" - in relation to the inner sphere (owing to the amount of transit time - usually many centuries - required to get there). Moving from the core to the periphery is in a sense like moving back in time. This phenomenon breaks down as the outer volume worlds develop their own cultures and civilisations.
  • Light Speed Paranoia  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Every star is separated from every other star by a distance on the order of light years, and so all information any one star-system can have about its neighbours is years out of date. This makes each star system paranoid about what the others are thinking and planning, so they have to assume the worst.
  • Lost Colonies  - Text by Somes Jung Hallinan with additions by Steve Bowers
    Colonies that have been totally isolated from the remainder of Terragen civilization for a long period of time.
  • Low World Houses  - Text by Wesley Bruce
    Low canopies to retain a breathable atmosphere on an inhospitable planet.
  • Magellanica  - Text by Anders Sandberg
    the first interstellar colony ship from the Federated South America Space Alliance (Gran Colombia, Federation of Brazil and the Argentinian States).
  • Mobile Frontier, The  - Text by Thorbjørn Steen
    The moving edge of Terragen expansion.
  • Red (Tau Ceti Colony Ship)  - Text by Anders Sandberg; adapted by Steve Bowers
    One of the oldest surviving spacecraft in the Terragen Sphere.
  • Relativist  - Text by Anders Sandberg
    Culture/Profession based on relativist courier and trader lifestyle. Relativists are of great importance to worlds not connected to the main wormhole nexus. These are the crew members of interstellar ships, who spend long years travelling in stasis at relativistic speeds. They can easily spend a century on a single mission, although to them it may only seem like a a few months or years. Despite great diversity among themselves, they are united in the sense of temporal discontinuity from the rest of Terragen life.
  • Sagittarius Project - Text by Anders Sandberg
    Major exploration project backed by a number of research and colonization megacorporations in the Establishment and early Consolidation era. The Sagittarius Project attempted to set up wormhole links to the Sagittarius arm and continue inwards to the galactic core. Over time, the Project developed into a megacorp-house like most others (eventually becoming the Sagittarius Sphere), and the thrust towards the core was replaced by exploiting the many new worlds found in the Sagittarius arm. Some research vessels are still on their way towards the core, and are expected back in a few millennia.
  • Scout Base  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev (inspired by Traveller Library)
    Port facility for the support, maintenance, and repair of scout vessels, usually located many light years from the nearest settled system or colony, let alone the nearest wormhole terminus. Most large empires maintain a variety of scout bases scattered throughout the periphery of known space.
  • Scout Ship  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    A small, long-range relativistic exploration vessel, almost always conversion or reactionless drive propelled, equipped and designed for extended relativistic travel, with excellent shielding, and generally some measure of self-repair (but not self-replication) faculties.
  • Seedship  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Interstellar vessel carrying embryos, gametes or digitised DNA in order to raise humans or other modosophonts on arrival using robotic parents.
  • Seedtech  - Text by Stephen Inniss, Steve Bowers and M. Alan Kazlev
    Large, self-replicating sporetech units
  • Starlark, The  - Text by Steve Bowers
    One of a numerous class of ships built after the Great Expulsion, as the population of Earth sought refuge in the worlds and habitats of the Solar System and among the stars.
  • Terragen Expansion  - Text by Anders Sandberg amended by Steve Bowers
    The expansion of the Terragen Sphere over time.
  • Territory - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Sector or colony or region of real or virtual space ruled remotely, generally through a local administration office or representative.
  • Virginis Combine, The  - Text by Anders Sandberg
    An early interstellar empire, influential during the late Federation and early Expansion periods.
  • Von Neumann Probe - Text by Anders Sandberg in his Transhuman Terminology
    A Von Neumann Machine able to move over interstellar or interplanetary distances and to utilize local materials to build new copies of itself. Such probes could be used to set up new colonies, perform megascale engineering or explore the universe (see the Far Edge Party).
  • Wilds, The  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Generic term for non-sephirotic terragen space beyond the borders of the Civilized Galaxy.
  • Wormholes - Cultural Factors  - Text by Anders Sandberg; additions by Todd Drashner and Stephen Inniss
    The addition of a wormhole stargate to a system has multiple effects both on local culture and on Terragen culture generally.
  • Xenomorph - Text by Steve Bowers
    Any Terragen entity using an artificial alien (xenosophont) body for the purposes of cultural contact, exploration or colonisation.
Related Topics
Development Notes
Text by Anders Sandberg

Initially published on 13 August 2000.

Information of the effects of Relativity on Fast Ships can be found here:
Relativity Calculator