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Extremely advanced civilization on a computerized space station orbiting a desolate uninhabited planet. There are no other known civilizations within this station's sphere of observation. Not many people on the space station have any scientific knowledge whatsoever because the station is fully automated, but those who do really really want to plan expeditions to the surface of the planet because there's nothing left to do on the station science-wise.

A single expedition has been done years in the past, with several crew members now lost and marooned on the planet. Years later, at the time of the story, a second expedition is nearing completion, doubling as a rescue op (although the actual fate of the original crew members are unknown).

I need a reason why these expeditions would take years to prepare for despite having advanced technology. Also, for plot reasons, drones, computerized ships, or robots should not be able to be sent to the surface in lieu of live missions, so I'd need a reason for that too. Bonus points if you can come up with a reason why there wouldn't be any satellite imagery or information on the planet they orbit (although not necessary).

Thanks in advance for any ideas. Let me know if you need clarification on something.

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    $\begingroup$ Surface mission planning run by NASA? $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 14 '18 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the atmospheric conditions of the planet are horrible. Just thinking along the lines of Star Trek TNG $\endgroup$ – B.fox Dec 14 '18 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ The space station's origin will play a big part in why it does what it does. If it came from the planet below, prior to some cataclysm, then the delays between expeditions could be cultural, religious or based on public fear. If, on the other hand, the station is the end product of a generation ship journey, then after ages in space, resource limits could cause the delays. Power systems meant to last millennia, might not be able to synthesis rocket fuel very fast. Mission planning oversights might also be involved. They might be making that rocket fuel on an improvised still and food waste $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Dec 14 '18 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ I think the Question Title has a double negative in it. Brain on friday work fuzzmode so can't work it out properly. Anyone with a clearer head?? $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Dec 14 '18 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps The grammar of the title is correct, though it is a bit long and hard to follow. But it sums up the question well so making it shorter and more direct would change the meaning. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Dec 15 '18 at 18:46
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It's like The Girls of Atomic City.

That's a terrific nonfiction book about women who worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during WWII doing Uranium enrichment work to aid the Manhattan Project.

Very deliberately, the people in charge of the project made sure that no one except some top-level people knew anything beyond the very specific job they had. While the book is about women (because their stories are less often told), this idea extended to all workers.

If your job was to perform a specific test on rocks and then report the numbers, that's all you did. You didn't know what the rocks were or which numbers were good or bad or what happened before and after your tests.

Even the town the workers lived in was more or less a secret. They weren't allowed to talk to anyone outside the project about what they were doing, even though they didn't really know what they were doing. Nor could they share information with co-workers outside of specific work tasks. They could give a mailing address to far flung family (and white workers could bring their families with them to the town, which had schools and etc) but that was about it. People got fired for small infractions.

It wasn't until the end of the war, or even after the war, that the workers knew what they had been doing and what the final product was.

So if your space station is owned by a government or private entity and serves a purpose they need to keep secret, it's very possible that they'd tell their workers absolutely nothing beyond what they need to do their jobs and keep the station running properly. If the purpose is secret, the lack of satellite imagery, drones, and so forth is a given. The workers don't need that information for their work, so why would they have it?

The scientists may know more about the purpose of the space station, or they at least can give some educated guesses, but that doesn't tell them what is really going on. It will be obvious to most that the planet they're orbiting has something important hidden on it, and that may make them even more eager to explore, but they won't know what it is.

The years between expeditions is because the government/company chose that timing. They needed to get people they trust in place. Plus they had to get the equipment there. Since expeditions weren't part of the regular schedule, the station didn't have enough equipment to run another expedition.

There are going to be consequences if the workers break the rules. Depending on how isolated they are and what they find out, being fired and removed from the station might not even be possible. The risks of disobeying orders might be quite grave indeed.

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While the station may be fully autonomous, it only does the things is was designed to do like maintaining power and life support for its inhabitants and recycling the heck out of its limited resources. If the station is not designed for planetary expeditions and its inhabitants are not as smart as it's makers, then those landings are being conducted by people who are basically MacGyvering the heck out of what they have.

Considering this context, there are some roadblocks. First of all, their landers would have to be made from those very limited extra materials the station has which would be a bureaucratic nightmare for approval. For example, if you only have 20 tons of aluminum on the station to meet the citizen's needs, then throwing 2 tons of that material over-board would be a controversial political matter with huge consequences. Even if the base relies on something like asteroid mining to replace attrition, it might be years between resupplies meaning that it could take a long time to recover the sacrifices made to send the first mission to enable a second one.

The second consideration is the fuel. The base would likely derive its power from a limited but renewable resource like solar power, or it will have a very advanced and complicated power source like a miniature black hole. Solar can't power a lander, and super advanced power systems can't be replicated by a society that does not fully understand how that power system was made to begin with. This means, the most likely source of fuel they would use would be chemical (like Kerosene or Liquid Hydrogen).

Depending on how advanced this station is, it may be either incapable of making these materials on it's own since they are not needed for survival, or the station blacklists dangerous compounds from being created by the replicators. This means, they may need to spend years growing plants, and processing the vegetative waste into kerosene to fuel their ships.

As for your last few questions, if the planet has a dense Venus like atmosphere, they may be able to photograph it, but not be able to know what's under the constant cover of clouds. If the planet is far enough from the star, then the strong greenhouse effect would create a more livable planet, instead of a less hospitable one. A thick atmosphere could also prevent drones from being sent because 2-way communication would be impossible from the ground. The limited knowledge of the stations "science" crew may also prevent them from making an AI smart enough to do the mission on it's own since that is also not a function that the base was designed to do. Alternatively, if the crew is smart enough to make a robot, there could be reasons why computers just don't work on the planet at all, like from an exceptionally powerful EM field.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea. One may live in an extremely advanced "smart house" with any automation imaginable, but if he doesn't have an umbrella and it rains outside, he can't go out, and all that automation is essentially useless. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Dec 14 '18 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ I love this answer. The limited resources and abilities of the station mean patiently waiting for the conversion of those resources into the tools you need for the expedition. Advanced technology isn't (and should never be) miraculous or magical. The station itself becomes the limiting factor your story needs to be enjoyable and believable. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 15 '18 at 4:17
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Why it takes so long to prepare: Getting down to the planet is fairly easy, but getting up again is difficult. There are no spaceports with well-maintained launchpads. Gravity is heavy so you need a multi-stage rocket to lift off, and this must be manufactured in space (most stages are not reusable), then fueled in space, then landed somehow on the planet in a way that it can take off again. This all takes time. Your explanation can be as simple as stating that the station can only produce fuel in excess of its needs at such-and-such a rate, so it takes N years to fill up the tanks of the expedition vessel.

Why they have no satellite data: The planet could have a "canopy" of full-time cloud cover, like Venus does. I'm no planetologist but I think this could be accomplished by having a planet somewhat closer to the sun than Earth. Or since this could be a far future scenario, perhaps the Sun has become a red giant and is closer to the Earth.

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Long term delays: Resources to build the shuttle have to be brought in from the asteroid belt/outer planets. They have to build the infra-structure to make the tools to make the tools to move the stuff to make the production plant that makes the fuel. Before you get too carried away with this, figure out how there present economy works: Perfect recycling?

Reinvent technology. If they don't have eneough people to understand their technology, they have to re-invent it.

Part of this may be lost information dating back to the first expedition.

Communication delays: Not being planet dwellers they don't know about the existence of the ionosphere. First expedition dropped out of contact as they passed the 50 mile level, and hasn't been heard from.

Or

They use line of site communications. The reentry by the first expedition was bungled, and they landed at a point that is never in sight of the station. (This takes serious bungling.)

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    $\begingroup$ If the satellite is in geosynchronous orbit, half of the planet is permanently out of line-of-sight communication. That reduces the bungling required to one oops-we-didn't-think-of-that. $\endgroup$ – Jasper Dec 15 '18 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ Truth. But a small delta-V on the station would allow it to get in sync. A low orbit combined with having to veer poleward to avoid a storm could put them below the horizon permanently. Mind you, an observation station is likely to be in a highly inclined orbit to see most of the planet. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Dec 17 '18 at 22:12
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I am intrigued that / Not many people on the space station have any scientific knowledge whatsoever /. They are surrounded by technology they depend on but do not understand and cannot fix.

They are degenerates.

Weena from The Time Machine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weena_(The_Time_Machine)

By which I mean not perverts, but persons who are less than their ancestors were in the manner of the Eloi in H.G.Wells The Time Machine.* The station was built by their remote ancestors, who also built drones, satellites and all the other scientific apparatus one might expect for such a station. Generations have passed and most occupants of the station pass their time in games and frivolities. Only a few have any interest in science and these are self taught. The drones and satellites break or malfunction to varying degrees and are not repaired. The AIs aboard the ship have decayed in the manner of their kind, isolating themselves and becoming weird and unreliable.

It takes a long time to put together the mission because these people have never had to do anything. The one person chiefly interested in conducting the mission has only desultory and haphazard help from the others, chiefly by force of her personality. She herself is enthusiastic but does not really know what she is doing, figuring things out along the way by trial and error.

*if you are reading on this site, but have never read The Time Machine, stop reading on this site and read The Time Machine

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If the planet suffers from almost constant geomagnetic storms, it would make it extremely difficult for spacecraft that are not appropriately shielded to make that expedition and can only be done when there is a break in the storms, which could be years apart.

Geomagnetic storms would also create very bright auroras, which could explain lack of visibility from space. You could also add weather conditions such as heavy rain clouds or dust storms to add to the obscurity.

The space station itself is shielded from such storms (it would need to be if in orbit), but does not come with any space vehicles that have the appropriate shielding. Why would it if travelling to the planet was not the mission?

Also, the space vehicles that are available don't come with any autopilot that could navigate a planet entry and safe landing, because they simply weren't designed for that.

Most of the station inhabitants aren't scientists, but some are. So while the inhabitants may have the skill to adapt one or two of the maintenance ships (used to carry out minor repairs to the outside of the station) for a planet entry (think heat shields), they don't have the required tools/skills to program an autopilot that could navigate that entry, deal with whatever weather conditions there are and land on what is moistly an unknown terrain.

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They live in Space and so they are not strong enough to go to the ground without prper training (our astronauts have to train so that the muscle degration is not to much, but they still have to train after returning to earth). Unfortunately, this means that the first expedition is propably dead. Or they also knew this and had this propper training like the second expedition. This training should only be doable for the fittest inhabitants and will need years of training. Still, on Earth every step will be hard work. Good luck, Gaianauts!

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i maybe see a reason. the tectonique of the planet is really active, some super volcano spit endlessly ashes into the atmosphere making observation really hard, and sending data via classical communication technologies unusable, you need to get them physically back.

With that setting sending drone and automatized drone is not really an option. You don't know where they land, what too look for. It would just be pointing a point on the planet, hope it is not a volcano or an ocean, have interesting characteristics for scientific work and a lot of other variable that are just not thing you can ask to the automated drone avaible to your station.

So you need to send human, to command the operation themselves and think without needing to ask question to the station regularly if they have any problems.

And since you will want to only take the bare minimum of people in those dangerous mission, you will need to train the scientists to surviving and exploration skill they just don't have yet, from on the field reparation, piloting vehicle they where never trained to use, to how survive on an unknown world where little to nothing is known. Those are quite difficult skill to learn, and you can't afford to not be sure about anything. So the training process might take as long as you need for your setting.

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