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Imagine a future where humanity has reached the stars, an exploration party lands on a earth like planet that's liveable (doesn't have to be perfect but life on it is on the range of what most people would consider comfortable, climate is ok, gravity isn't too heavy or light, breathable air, sunlight, etc), the thing is that due to X they found out they are now stuck on the planet and can't leave, my question is what is the reason preventing them to get back to orbit?

  • I'm looking for natural causes (or at least non-technological, meaning that some natural non-intelligent bacteria/animal/etc on the planet can be the reason, just not something that said alien animal built)
  • Ideal answer will be something that only prevents people/equipment on the surface of the planet to get back to orbit but will have no other effects
    • This is also how I'll rank answers, the lower an "impact" the answer has other then stopping orbital launches the better
  • To be clear this should be something that will affect all ships landing on this planet, not just local to the region the first ship landed on or some issue with the ship and them not having the right spare parts, had it not been for X the ships landing on the planet would have been able to reach orbit as they have been designed to reach orbit from similar planets.
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    $\begingroup$ If it was just one lander, I'd say it was missing because one of the local life forms took it for a joy ride. 😁 $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ What makes this hard is that the civilization is supposed to be starfaring. That implies a highly advanced technology that would have been designed to deal with foreseeable eventualities, which we are trying to foresee. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ this problem seems tricky because rocket fuel is made from the same elements as life. $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 5:26
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    $\begingroup$ Our current technology is exactly at this level: we can land on an earthlike planet, yet cannot take off if we're limited to what we bring with us in the original rocket. Look up the tyranny of the rocket equation. If there was another Earth in the Solar system, we could land on it, requiring basically a rocket the size similar to the Moon landings. Yet to take off again, we'd need that same rocket again. How would we transport it and its fuel? We use up that humongous rocket and all that fuel to send a tiny little craft up, so imagine how gigantic a rocket we'd need to lift all that fuel. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ What sort of timeframes do you need to keep the travelers there? If the expedition craft doesn't bring fuel/rocket stages with it you can easily explain it becoming trapped. And if faster-than-light travel is impossible there's no difficulty explaining why help isn't coming. Building the industry required to build rocket and launch them from nothing could take centuries, depending on how many people you have and the level of resources they throw at the task. It gets harder if you need to keep an entire civilization planet-bound, especially one that knows space travel is possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 5:11

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How about Thixotropy? This is a phenomenon also encountered on earth and is the cause for quicksand. Perhaps the surface of your planet appears (and mostly is) solid, but liquifies when agitated by a sufficiently strong vibration, for example the engine of a spacecraft. With a spacecraft half (or entirely) drowned in the soil, each attempt at starting the engines causing it to sink further, the crew remains stranded on the planet.

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    $\begingroup$ Note to self: Add this to the reasons to ALWAYS use multiple robotic scouting and sample return missions on any unexplored planet. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman I would say that the scouts not being able to get off the ground for a sample return would be a pretty solid indication that you shouldn’t try a manned landing. I’d be more worried about scouts being too small to trigger such an issue in the first place. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ Great way to strand the first ship, but rescue seems doable enough - the second ship would hover just above the surface, get people climb in the rocket somehow and blast off. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ @ZizyArcher "People climb in the rocket somehow" - easier said than done. Getting anywhere near a hovering rocket will burn you to a crisp or liquefy your internal organs from the acoustic energy. You'd need serious protection to even come within 100m of a firing orbital rocket, much less climb aboard from the outside. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4 yes, but it's not just acoustics liquefying it, but intense heat as well. After you melt the sand with heat, you can fly away for a few minutes and wait for it to harden into a solid sheet of rock that you can safely land on. First ship might get stuck, but before long people would learn ways of making solid places to land and take off from. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 22:57
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In a short story by Clifford D. Simak (You'll Never Go Home Again!, 1951), this is achieved by some sort of microbe that selectively attacks metallic iron, causing it to rust. In a matter of days, the rocket is stranded.

Another possibility (quite farfetched, but spectacular) is an unstable moonlet fracturing at just the right moment, locking the planet beneath a post-Kessler shield.

In Iceworld by Hal Clement, people from planet Sarr, from their base on the horribly cold and inhospitable first planet of the star Sol, observe the strange blue-green plains that cover three fifths of the even colder third planet. All the probes trying to land report that the blue plains are essentially flat, but as soon as they touch down, communications cease (a less drastic version of his very first story, 1942's Proof).

Something similar happens to the lander from Aes Triplex when landing on Venus in Heinlein's Space Cadet: the Venusian mud appears like solid ground, but is destabilized by the rocket exhaust and swallows the lander (then, the mud infiltrates the still-working gyroscopes and "fries" them, making takeoff impossible). For this to happen on a whole planet, you'd need a very funny planet indeed, as well as no landing radars or probes.

Adverse surface conditions: landing is a comparatively brief matter, staying landed and taking off is a much more lengthy endeavour. Anything capable of disrupting the takeoff procedure could make it risky enough as to call it "impossible". Strong enough winds, for example, or the "surface" being a thick algal mat over an oceanic planet. To be able to take off you'd need first to download (splash-landing them) materials and build a suitable stable platform, or have a specially designed "amphibious" starship - something that can take off like a hydroplane, then reach the stratosphere using scramjets and finally enter orbit, rather than taking off in the usual initially-vertical arc.

One really contrived possibility: a design trap. Rocket efficiency depends on external pressure. So, first of all we increase gravity and gravitational well depth, and decrease the rocket's power, efficiency and fuel reserves, so that a successful takeoff is just barely possible (in other words, our starships are designed to only ever land on a narrow choice of suitable planets; they're intentionally under-engineered because of, say, economic reasons). Then we assume that the bottom of the atmosphere, where you actually do land, has an unexpectedly high pressure - because it's not the surface at all, but the surface of an atmospheric ocean of heavy gas (the only candidate, sulfur hexafluoride, six times as dense as air, being unfortunately an artificial gas. This could come in handy though: tests did not reveal the trap, because SF6 is definitely not something you run spectrometer checks against). Again, a specially designed starship (essentially one with larger, more powerful rockets) could still easily take off, but our default starships won't.

A definitely implausible but scientific-sounding possibility is anomalous atmospheric ionization, that allows a shuttle to glide down using wings and airbrakes, but would prevent it from igniting the takeoff rockets since it would cause the shuttle to be literally smitten down by lightning.

And then there's unnatural causes. In several works (Heirs of Empire by David Weber, Crisis on Centaurus by Brad Ferguson, Impossible Return by Chris Clare) there is a planetary defense system that has been damaged or otherwise gone senile, and may have absurd rules of engagement - such as allowing a ship to land, but treating it as hostile when taking off.

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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus: But you usually don’t need a heatshield to launch a rocket. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ I like something that degrades rubbers....your ship appears fine, but your door seals have failed and your seals on your space suit as well, good luck with that. Plus no one wants to let you off the planet anyway because they can't really decontaminate you. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ I'm adding Iceworld to my reading list. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, in EftA (I assume you mean Heirs of Empire, specifically?), the defenses "tried" to kill them in both directions. That, plus another answer, suggests a not-crazy reason, though; the planet is (was?) infected with some horrible plague, and some long lost people built a defense system to shoot down anything trying to leave as a defense. (Maybe they wanted to let unmanned supply ships land, and humans don't understand the warning buoys. Or those are broken.) $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @LSerni Try here. Not, IMHO, one of Simak's best. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 17:51
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Gravity

It is generally considered that there exists a limit, after which it becomes nearly impossible to go into stable orbit using rockets because you will never be able to reach escape velocity. If your ship used atmospheric braking and aerodynamics to land on the planet, it would be able to safely land there, but the crew will be unable to leave it ever again. This question has answers detailing this in greater aspect:

https://space.stackexchange.com/questions/14383

To a lesser extent, your rocket can simply be designed for liftoff from planets with weaker gravity, so it on its own would be unable to break free from the gravity on its own. The downside is that it would probably be unable to safely land there too...

Another downside to the entire solution is that it would be unrealistic if the people get stranded in this way accidentally - since gravity is one of the most obvious things a planet can have, you cannot miss that detail.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'll make it a bit more clear in the main question that the ship is otherwise capable of getting back to orbit from similar scale planets and that there is a cause on the planet preventing it (gravity is something all ships capable of reaching orbit is designed to overcome so that doesn't work) $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ The scale of the planet is irrelevant because the main factor determining the intensity of its gravity is its MASS rather than its size, which is mainly determined by the composition and density of its core. That's the main reason why the gravitational difference between two planets can vary wildly even if they are of similar size. When it comes to spacecraft the same policy applies with regular aircraft: landing is easy (because you're working with gravity) but taking off is hard (because you're working against gravity). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ Part 2: The main reason why large spacecraft, especially spaceships measuring hundreds of tons in weight, tend to avoid landing on planets unless they are absolutely forced into doing it is because it's far more costly than sending smaller craft (shuttles, tugs, scoutships) to land in their stead piecemeal. The larger the spacecraft the exponentially harder it becomes for it to take off once it landed on a planet. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ @ArgentHellion that is entirely incorrect. Surface gravity (which determines the thrust needed) is inversely proportional to the square of the radius, surface escape velocity (which is more or less proportional to the delta-v needed) is inversely proportional to the square root of the radius. The mass of the planet depends on its density and its radius. And the exponential relation for spacecraft is to the required delta-v, not the size of the vehicle. Making multiple trips with small craft is less efficient, and only helps if the great majority of the mass stays in orbit. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see an interstellar crew missing this. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 15:35
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Your launch-to-orbit rockets don't work properly because their chemical burn is being messed with by an air-born catalyst in the planets atmosphere.

I image some spores of the local moss or grass equivalent have chemical properties that happen to be a catalyst for the propellant/oxidizer mixture that you use for your rockets. This causes the rockets either to fizzle and have not enough lifting power or it accelerates the burn out of control making the rockets explode.

You can't replace the fuel because there is nothing else that works with your rocket design. (Or the alternatives don't have sufficient lift capacity when used in your existing rockets.)
You can't replace the rockets completely as you don't have the technology base and/or production capability to do that.

Eventually your colony may be able to build the necessary local infrastructure to design/build new launch-vehicles.
But for now everybody is stuck dirt-side.

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    $\begingroup$ That sounds like it could be a great fit... any ideas/suggestions on what that catalyst is? $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ Alien bio-chemistry so anything goes, but it probably would be some protein or enzyme like substance (that doesn't appear in terrestrial bio-chemistry) on the outside of these spores. It is sheer coincidence it acts as a catalyst on the fuel. Because the stuff was previously unknown there was no way to predict that this would happen. Catalytic chemistry (especially organic chemistry) is complicated and can have very surprising effects. It is a field of chemistry that still leaves a lot to be discovered. (I'm not a chemist, but a friend of mine is and he gets lyrical about the subject.) $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ great answer for air-breathing rockets (which can still work story wise), otherwise if I was in one of those explorers place I would just wrap the engine manifold in tinfoil and use a vacuum pump (both things I'm sure there's laying around in an explorer spaceship) to suck all the air in the manifold, blocking the only way the spores can reach into the rocket engine (it's a spaceship, it's safe to assume it's airtight), once the rocket ignites all the heat and fire from it being a rocket should kill the spores well before they reach into the combustion chamber and blast the tinfoil away $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ @cypher The catalyst issue could apply for non-airbreathing rockets too as spores get in the combustion chambers when the launch-vehicle is sitting on the launch-pad. At least for the first couple of launch-attempts when they don't yet know what the problem is. It might be solvable as your describe, if and when, they realize what causes the problems with the fuel. That could be the real issue. They probably would first ascribe the problems to a defect in the rockets themselves or a bad batch of fuel. Could really take a long time before they figure out what causes the issues. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ I was going to suggest that once you landed you couldn't produce any fuel for some reason, but you have also mentioned this in your answer. Rather than it being an issue burning the fuel because of a catalyst, perhaps you just couldn't create the fuel in the first place for some reason? $\endgroup$
    – Craig H
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 16:44
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Quarantine:

Oh, crap, now we've done it. We should have sent down the robotic probes first. If what we're seeing is true, this virus and those nearly indestructible bacterial spores have already gotten into all the crew and equipment. The virus appears functionally like the Cthellian flu that killed a billion people. THAT plague spread and combined with other viruses, a lethal combination. Thank God no one in the landing party had the virus that would combine with this one to form an interplanetary pandemic. We can't, in good conscience, take off and bring this stuff back to the vulnerable people in orbit. If we did, we could never entirely get rid of viruses inside crewmembers. It's already inserted itself into our DNA.

The folks still in orbit have looked at our results and decided to shoot us down if we take off. I guess that settles it. We're here for the long haul. At least it's pretty here.

Flying Jellyfish:

A variation on Kessler syndrome, your crew have to parachute down to the planet because it is full of photosynthetic hydrogen-filled jellyfish that clog the atmosphere. The faster you go, the more you hit. This isn't 100% effective at stopping escape, since people might find clearing times, get to high atmosphere levels with balloons, or blow holes in the cloud of organisms to get out. But they might spend years working out the solutions or have a moral objection to ecological devastation or setting off atmospheric blast nuclear weapons just so they can get off the planet. This solution means they assumedly know about the problem in advance and still go to the planet knowing they will be trapped (escape pods?).

If you have to blow a hole in the wildlife to go in or out, and someone sabotaged the nuclear weapons or they detonated them and were unexpectedly delayed (wait, John's ALIVE!), they might not have a backup plan for another pass. Anyone know how to refine uranium?

Volcanic eruptions:

Volcanic ash builds up rapidly in the atmosphere, and the shuttle they use is designed to operate in relatively predictable atmospheres. Ash of this kind can be invisible to the naked eye or appear as ordinary clouds. Active volcanism in many places can fill the entire plant's atmosphere, although there may be some regions where it is less concerning. The stuff rapidly builds up in the atmospheric engines the craft uses to fly in the air. When they inspect the engines on the ground, the engineer informs them that the rotors are already worn down to dangerous levels and the internal parts are coated in glass. The craft can't fly high enough to reach an altitude to safely engage the rockets.

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  • $\begingroup$ The "Quarantine" answer is similar to a major plot point in Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSchepler That did come to mind, and I considered mentioning that one. But in that specific case, I think they still went into space (it's been a while since I read it) and I thought it could confuse the issue $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ "Quarantine" is pretty much exactly the plot of "Ammonite" by Nicola Griffith. $\endgroup$
    – kpollock
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 13:28
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Extreme weather

Taking off requires a ΔV budget which increases with latitude. This is why NASA launches from Cape Canaveral rather than Anchorage, and why ESA launches from the Guianas rather than from Europe.

Other than that one of the biggest hurdles is weather. Many important launches such as the recent James Webb satellite or anytime Elon Musk tried to launch a recoverable rocket has been haunted by unfavorable winds.

So if your planet has permanent bad weather all the way to high latitudes (say, all the way to 45⁰, which is a tad farther north than NY on the northern hemisphere), then launching should be prohibitively expensive. Even more so with the lack of pre-existing infrastructure.

By the way, our own Earth has had multiple periods where this was the case. Two long lasting examples are Snowball Earth and possibly the Carnian Pluvial Event. Eras of active global volcanism would also do the trick by filling the air with dust - I remember some volcano went off some years ago and commercial flights were grounded for a few days worldwide.

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    $\begingroup$ That may help stop getting to orbit but such long periods of bad weather will also make the world less then livable $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ @cypher note that "weather bad enough to stop a rocket launch" can be substantially milder than "weather bad enough to limit habitability". Spacelaunch is hazardous and highly energetic. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @cypher Earth was very lush during the Carnian Pluvial Event. In fact there was an explosion of life during that time. It would be quite harsh on flying machines though. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 11:04
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    $\begingroup$ @cypher, rocket launches and lightning don't mix (see, for example, the launch of Apollo 12). If your planet has a persistent layer of charge separation, launches will be a high-risk activity (the exhaust plume provides a conductive channel between the charged air and the ground), but landings will work just fine (any sensible rocket uses aerodynamics, not thrust, to slow down before landing). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ Just making a comment with the name and year of the week long air-disrupting volcanic eruption that was mentioned in the answer. 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (Iceland). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 8:38
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Your explorers were chased down on to this planet.

cavemen in tree

source

And whatever found them in space and chased them down onto this planet is still out in space, waiting. Unlike the hungry lion (which gave up after 2 days), that thing in space is fine with playing the long game. It knows they are down there. It cannot itself come down to get them, but it can wait for a very long time.

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Kessler Syndrome

Wiki

If a planet has many objects in orbit. Adding new object or energy (Asteroid passing by, Space ship landing on the planet or an explosion) to the system can cause a cascade of collisions between objects, breaking them up in to smaller pieces and sending them in new directions. Making space above the planet inaccessible.

Video Explanation

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  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a pretty good idea to me, but it makes me wonder: how were they able to land on the planet under these conditions? $\endgroup$
    – Nayunis
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ The orbiting object are in predictable stable orbits and when the ship goes through the atmosphere to land, the ships engines plumes accelerate some of the object causing the chain reaction. Also the effect at the begging can go unnoticed. And depending on the story can be detected when the ships tries to leave. $\endgroup$
    – H. Gunov
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ Nice! That makes sense :) $\endgroup$
    – Nayunis
    Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 10:30
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Cost-cutting and/or negligence.

A real-world example: LCS-2 USS Independence is an aluminum-hulled ship that operates in salt water. This takes special measures to prevent corrosion, typically a cathodic protection system. The Independence was originally designed with such a system, but it was deleted to reduce construction costs. Within a year of commissioning, Independence was experiencing severe corrosion damage, and ended up in a drydock for repairs the next year.

In your case...ammonia is quite corrosive to copper alloys, which are widely used in rocket engines for their relatively high temperature tolerance and very high thermal conductivity. Perhaps the presence of ammonia in the environment wasn't passed on to the engineers or they were never asked to review the environmental hazards, perhaps the anti-corrosion coatings were substandard, or maybe protective post-landing procedures were skipped to save time and costs. Then launch day comes and critical systems are found to be suffering from severe stress corrosion cracking.

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  • $\begingroup$ "ammonia is quite corrosive to copper alloys" - Ammonia is also toxic to humans though, which isn't allowed by the question. NIOSH lists the "immediate danger" level for gaseous ammonia as 300ppm; would concentrations significantly lower than that still affect copper noticeably? $\endgroup$
    – marcelm
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ @marcelm from what I've read, yes, corrosion's an issue at levels a fraction of that. Further, ammonia is extremely water soluble and can be washed out of the air and into enclosed areas by rainfall, it can form concentrated solutions at low temperatures by water freezing out (think ammonia-saturated dew on a frosty morning), and could easily be geographically concentrated by production or transport by water. It also can easily be filtered out of the air, so while inconvenient and obnoxious, it wouldn't render the planet unlivable. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ Also this should affect all ships landing there, I can buy one ship having cut corners be the reason but every ship? like ocean ships there's a lot of variance in design of spaceships. $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ @cypher the scenario in your question is an exploration party. It seems quite reasonable to expect the fleet to be fairly homogenous in composition, following the same procedures and training, and being given the same orders by the decision-makers back home. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ I remember an older story where a ship made an emergency landing on a planet, discovering mid-descent that the atmosphere was nitrogen/oxygen/ammonia (or possibly just nitrogen/ammonia). The ammonia corrosion meant they were not getting back to space any time soon. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 15:15
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Love

Ideal answer will be something that only prevents people/equipment on the surface of the planet to get back to orbit but will have no other effects

So far, the majority of answers I have read have addressed the equipment getting off the surface and people would automatically travel with the equipment. I thought we should look at the fundamental reverse of this. There is nothing wrong with the equipment. There is something wrong with the people.

From space/probes/scans, everything shows up as a wonderful looking planet. Air is perfectly breathable, gravity is almost a perfect match for Earth, temperature is on par with Earth's pre-industrial revolution. Water is clean and safe to drink. Plenty of flaura and fauna that are pleasing to the eye and seem to all behave in symbiosis rather than the more destructive preditor/prey/parasite releationships we see on Earth i.e. it's a paradise.

When people land, they are delighted with what they find. The planet provides everything they need. It's peaceful, it's happy and everyone seems to be getting on really well with each other. So much better than when it seemed like they were all squabbling all the time whilst cooped up on a tiny spaceship. What was never noticed until people got here is that there is a fascinating reaction between pollen in the air, the minerals in the water and the brain's emotional receptors where some are dulled and others enhanced.

Much like the fauna of the planet, the people have also succumbed to this "love". Their lives are happier, they don't fight, they only aim to make life better for each other and the creatures on the planet. Every day is a paradise surrounded by wonderful things and people they love. Money, positions, power, recognition suddenly mean nothing as they are all tied to the greed economy that they left behind. They don't want to leave. When you have found paradise, why should you want to return to hell? They stop maintaining their ship and it falls into disrepair - what do you want a ship for if you're not going anywhere? Maybe they take the radio out so that they can invite their families and loved ones to come to join them in this paradise.

Without the will to leave, the people won't leave. Love keeps them happy and love keeps them here. It may not be the same love as we know on Earth but it is a kind of love and it does not interefere with their everyday lives. It is logged by doctors and scientists after landing but considered harmless as the sources are completely natural and no negative or harmful effects are observed at any point.

Fear

Of course, if we have to, we can take the above context and flip it - it's still a symbiotic paradise but people also gain an overpowering fear of leaving. So much so that they destroy/disable their ships and any incoming ones as soon as they have landed. This one is more likely to have some form of medical intervention as there are clearly harmful effects resulting from this (the destruction of ships) but maybe people don't really care about that at this point. Just hoping it doesn't extend to the total destruction of technology.

I prefer the love basis but fear is more exciting and it's always good to have options.

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  • $\begingroup$ So, an effect similar to the one in In the Day of the Comet by H. G. Wells? (Or whatever the exact wording of the title was.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that but it's perfectly plausible that similar concepts have been explored in the past. If relevant, I was partially inspired by people going blind in Day of the Triffids from the shooting stars and also from modern games such as No Mans Sky and Planet Nomads where you can find a serene beauty to some places and prefer to stay there and build a base to enjoy it further rather than actually completing whatever quest you are meant to be doing. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ "Ancient Light" by Mary Gentle uses a thing in between the 2... the natives just can't live for any length of time on other planets due to a deep connection to the planet ... you could go for an "Avatar"-like feel to that where once "hooked in" you have to regularly "connect". Also see "Crystal Singer" by Anne McCaffery - spore combines with DNA, staying off planet too long kills you. These books allow a longish period off-planet, but you could have it faster acting. $\endgroup$
    – kpollock
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ That's a great addition! I used to love the Crystal Singers books as a child but had completely forgotten about that bit until you reminded me. Thank you. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 13:36
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Corrosive/damaging cloud layer affecting elastomer seals

As ships arrive, they pass through the upper atmosphere, and then the lower cloud layers. They know the general atmospheric content, but didn't notice the clouds are acidified (or otherwise highly corrosive, or have other properties damaging to a craft in descent). Or, more sneakily, become so when heated or when they mix with hot chemicals that are in the thruster exhaust.

The thrusters (assuming the crafts have thrusters of some kind) stirs up and heats the cloud layer. If the clouds aren't already damaging, the interaction with the exhaust makes them so.

The ships then descend through this damaging cloud/product, and..... well, the metal is fine. But the seals are completely wrecked. Seals round windows and hatches, O-rings to seal in fuel dumping ports... All kinds of elastomers are embrittled. And,its not obvious, but this pervades just enough beyond the surface of the ship, to not be obvious what the damage is.

(When an outside part embrittles, it stops protecting inner parts against cloud or condensed cloud stuff, so you get a penetrating effect, during or after descent. Or a risk of it, which amounts to the same thing)

You can probably patch or cover corroded metal enough. But unless you have a factory to dismantle, rebuild, and pressure-test affected internal and external seals, for your entire ship afterwards, pervasive seal damage isn't going to be fixable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Something like this was my idea. A layer of atmosphere that was unnoticed which somehow damages the ship as it passes through. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't considered acid, but that would work well with my flying jellyfish. +1 $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ Unsure what are your optimal "plausible chemicals" to degrade and penetrate a broad range of likely elastomers. Could be acid, may not be. Dunno!! $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 15:28
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No More Spaceship

As many answers have suggested, iron-eating bacteria is the way to go. Create a baceria that uses iron as a crucial stage in it's metabolism, and watch your characters realize the problem as their spaceship dissolves before their eyes.

Fuel Was Made To Burn

Add some checmical to the atmosphere: something not harmful to humans, but something that reacts powerful to the spaceship fuel. And by powerfuly, I mean in a explosive manner. As soon as the characters open the fuel system to add harvested fuel, or to check on their fuel levels: KABOOM!

Aurora Of Death

Your planet has a particularly weak magnetic field, and your sun is particularly prone to solar storms. As soon as your ship lands, the vulnerable and fragile circuits are instantly fried. Sure, you can fix them, it'll just take a dedicated industrial base with hundreds upon hundreds of factories.

Curiosity Killed The Octopi

"Cool, this planet has animal life! They look like land-octopi. Woah, it squeezed into the spaceship! NO, DONT PRESS THA-"

The local animal life is curious, and curiousity killed it. And it killed your characters, too. Some creature has managed to make it's way into the ship, and it's pressed buttons that should not be pressed. Like, for example, the downvote button on this answer!

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    $\begingroup$ Fuel and fuel pressure/level gauges won't have atmospheric contact. The others are fun though $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Stilez Thanks! Also, that's why I mentioned As soon as the characters open the fuel system to add harvested fuel, or to check on their fuel levels: $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ Its more "if" than "as soon as" :) $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 6:35
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    $\begingroup$ I would expect that if a starship can withstand being in orbit, it can certainly withstand being inside the partial protection of a crappy magnetic field too $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ If their ship uses any kind of jet with an intake, you can simply have bird/colonial insect analogs crawling into the engine because it's warm. They don't notice the giant pseudo-hornet nest that has been built there overnight... $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 11:38
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The planet is rich in samarium salts and cobaltite

When you sent your probe ahead to scout the place, it landed using battery power and a parachute. It took soil and air samples and found a combination of a safe atmosphere and some pretty industrially useful elements that are not too common on Earth.

This is wonderful news; so, next you send a colony ship... but this ship does not land using a parachute. Since you are a star-faring people, it probably does not land with chemical rockets either. Instead, it probably lands with some kind of nuclear rocket system powered by a tokamak fusion reactor. Unlike the parachute and battery lander, this ship melts the sand it lands on causing it to alloy allowing the cobolt and samarium to mix in the presence of the powerful magnetic field made by your ship. This results in the ground you land on turning into a whirlwind of tiny but very strong rare earth magnets that cling to the bottom of your ship.

Not a big deal of course, since all of the electronics on your ship are already very well shielded against the magnetism of your fusion reactor... but there is one part of your ship not designed to deal with powerful magnets and that is the reactor itself.

The intense magnetism from the newly minted magnetic dust alters the shape of the magnetic fields in the reactor just enough to breach containment melting a hole in the side of your reactor. Even if your crew could get rid of all the magnetic dust that just stuck to the side of your ship, and fix the reactor, they still could not take off without recreating the problem that blew their reactor to begin with.

Why would these minerals cover the whole planet?

On Earth we have an organism called thiobacillus ferrooxidans that only thrives in muddy environments. This bacteria uses a lot of iron in its biology; so, in places where this bacteria grows iron is constantly being leached from the ground and concentrated at or near the surface forming what we call bog iron.

On your planet, most if not all life evolved to be reliant on cobalt and samarium as fundamental parts of thier makeup. So, over billions of years, as the top layers of the planet build one on top of another life keeps coming in, putting down roots and drawing these elements back to the surface. Over time this reluctance of life to let these elements sink down along with other elements will cause them to become more and more concentrated at the surface... so on this world, anywhere that life grows or has grown within the past few million years will have plentiful amounts of these elements. There may of course be a few safe places to land, but it will take scientists a lot of time studying the planet to figure out what causes this buildup before mission controllers can begin to make accurate predictions about safe places to land... and even then, it will always be a bit of a gamble guessing how long a place has been without life, and knowing whether or not the hazardous sand may have blown or washed in from somewhere else.

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  • $\begingroup$ Whilst I doubt this is a plausible thing to find across the whole planetary surface, +1 for a neat idea. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime Great point, I've revised my answer to include a section explaining how the surface of a planet could become saturated with 1 or more specific elements. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 17:06
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Thick atmosphere.

This doesn't necessarily require super-high gravity (see Venus, for an extreme example) and doesn't necessarily violate the breathability or habitability requirements as humans can survive for extended periods of time at pressure of several standard atmospheres (see saturation diving for example).

Thicker atmosphere means increased aerodynamic drag, which means increased delta-V requirements to get into orbit. In combination with a few other effects, such as slightly increased gravity, and slightly reduced rotation rates (so you get less boost from an equatorial launch) and unpleasant weather (denser air can exert more force when moving at the same velocity as less dense air) might all add up to enough to overcome your spacelaunch capabilities.

Important note 1:

Rockets can't quite be made arbitrarily powerful, but they can be pretty gosh-darn impressive: there can't be many planets which are habitable to unprotected humans that would prevent an Orion drive rocket from escaping to orbit, for example. This implies that rescue is only a matter of time, unless someone comes up with a magical rocket-blocking mechanism that is independent of rocket power. And that sounds suspiciously un-natural to me.

Important note 2:

Being stranded on a planet due to ignorance of the above natural causes is to some extent an idiot ball plot. Gravity and atmospheric composition and weather patterns can be calculated and observed from vast distances. Even some secret magic spacelaunch stopping mechanism requires that no-one send down a probe and have it return some samples of things it finds. Landing meatbags on an unknown biosphere without investigating it first is obviously pretty silly. Any suggested rocket-blocker mechanism will therefore require either the landing to be forced or accidental, or there be some Golgafrincham Ark B situation.

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    $\begingroup$ It could be that the thick atmosphere requires a prohibitively small acceleration in order to meet constrains at max q so that the rocket doesn't have enough fuel to make it to orbit. $\endgroup$
    – philn
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ I too was thinking "thick atmosphere". $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ Note, also, that thick atmospheres degrade rocket performance. Chemical rockets can't get off Venus, period. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ It would be interesting to see a setting where rockets have to begin thier take off by being hoisted 10s of km high by giant balloons before the air gets thin enough for the rockets to begin thier real ascent since a dense atmosphere would have the inverse effect on balloon technology's ability to achieve lift. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 14:25
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The atmosphere.

  • Bacteria emitting flame retardant gasses (thus reducing the power of the engine) e.g. Bromtrifluormethan

  • Or your ships use nuclear fission reactors for powering a scramjet for the first takeoff phase, and the atmosphere contains too much xenon (neutron poison) so that you can't drive the reactor critical.

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  • $\begingroup$ Flame retardant wouldn't work. The relevant combustion happens inside the nozzle, where all atmospheric gases are blown out; what happens to the flame after it has left the nozzle is irrelevant to the propulsion. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ @toolforger: That depends if you use an air breathing engine (e.g. a scramjet) or not. $\endgroup$
    – Sascha
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ in that case, the next landing spacecraft would not be using an airbreather and rescue the people. That's not the scenario the question talks about. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ @toolforger: Well. I am not sure how long that development may or may not take - it could be that the boundary conditions (e.g. weight/propellant needs) required the landing vehicles to be air breathing. If you just assume that the question meant "they can call the home planet to develop something to take off, and wait until that is finished", the no planet will be safe against leaving it. $\endgroup$
    – Sascha
    Commented Jan 9, 2022 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose that's why there's a question in the first place :-) $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 15:53
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A captured Bok globule.

The tricky part here is the "will affect all ships landing on this planet [...] they have been designed to reach orbit from similar planets." clause, since I read that as meaning that future ships should be able to freely land, and communicate, but will know in advance that they will be unable to take off, even if their mission is specifically designed for this particular planetary destination.

This precludes economics/time as a concern, as well as just about all of the existing suggestions, so far as I can see. Anything unexpected that subsequent ships can be made aware of, or that ground crews can clear from a landing zone; anything that attacks material, fuel or people that could be shielded/protected in subsequent landers; volcanic effects (rocketry doesn't care); weather (would make landings harder than takeoffs); energy leeching (can't think of any approach to leeching where energy brought down in the ship couldn't be protected, apart from handwavey "the beam is sucking power straight out of the dilithium, Captain" type soft-science stuff).

Our big problem: in general, landing in one piece on unstable ground or in an unstable atmosphere is harder than taking off and reaching space from a solidly built base under the same conditions. Given enough notice, ships can be made secure against whatever threat that would prevent liftoff. The only exception is that liftoff takes more energy, and that's a difficult one to prevent since energy can be brought down and protected.

So, what about if we reframe the question. Perhaps what we really want is the "Bermuda triangle in space". A place that ships avoid, if they accidentally enter they are never expected to leave, where their navigational instruments will be useless, they will run aground, and will never have a rescue ship sent because it's known to be dangerous; but which nonetheless happens to be reasonably pleasant if you're wrecked there.

So, is there some method that can make a planetary system act like a lovely atoll amidst hostile uncharted reefs?

Kessler syndrome has been suggested and allows us to destroy the ships, forcing them to crash-land on the only viable planet; or to send out farm-more-strongly-protected escape capsules which can survive (or be small enough to mostly avoid being hit). But typically Kessler syndrome happens on a planetary scale. For this to work, it needs to be on a stellar scale instead: the whole solar system affected, perhaps more.

Put the planetary system in a big ol' cloud of electrically charged space-dust and radiation blocking comms and visibility, so they won't know how Kesslery the area is until too late. Then it just becomes "that dangerous, uncharted nebula around that one star". Ships avoid it, and try to steer clear. If they're forced to take a shortcut through it, they either pass straight through without turning, or they get hit. Ships lost in there are assumed to be lost forever.

Problem with normal nebulae: if it were the original nebula of the star's formation, then the planets that formed would have cleared the dust away, any remaining dust would have settled in the disk, and there'd be no problems.

So likely this would need to be a small, dense dust nebula that the star has recently captured or is passing through. The nebula would need to have these properties:

  • Not many dangerously large life-ending chunks that might hit the planet and destroy all life;
  • Enough smaller chunks that a ship passing through the system stands a decent (1%?) chance of being crippled, but the route might just be worth the risk for some risk-takers or outlaws;
  • The small chunks would be accelerated by planetary gravity, so it'd get exponentially more dangerous as you approached the planet (making "running aground" there a near-certainty if you got too close?);
  • Lots of radio interference to mess with communications so mayday messages can't be detected from outside the system;
  • RF blocking interference also affecting navigation, electronics, object tracking, etc, like an old sailing ship having its compass messed with while in a fog;
  • Blocking visibility for tracking smaller objects, for laser comms, and for rescue ships to find deserted ships, thus making rescues impractical given the danger;
  • Allowing the planet to be old and temperate enough to support life;
  • Not blocking the light from the sun enough to prevent life on the planet, though it can have cooled a good few degrees from a desert planet to a temperate one as it went deeper into the cloud. By feeding on the dust, the sun could also get a bit brighter as it entered the nebula, compensating for the dimming of its light?

Bok globule

These seem to fit a star drifting into a filament of what is called a "Dark Nebula", or perhaps the small subtype of dark nebulae called a Bok globule.

Narrative benefits

This answer also has some visual/storytelling benefits, too. All that space junk it's passing through will give a constant show of shooting stars and incredible aurorae across the entire planet, both effects being perhaps even visible during the day. The radio interference could perhaps even be accompanied by space-lightning; not sure how that works in space.

It also allows for other dramatic story elements: drifting "space hulks" in the nebula; other stars within the nebula could endanger the planet's parent sun, giving a longterm motive for finding a way offplanet; outlaws might hide out in the nebula, avoiding planets as they would accelerate space debris, increasing the risk significantly.

Plus, "Bok globule" is just a wonderful name, and you want to be able to use that in a story.


Speed of light

This one's not a great answer to the question, but... the planet could just be a long way away, and not reachable by any other ships. Then any ship which crashes there will never see a rescue ship. This feels precluded by the assumptions in the question, but I thought I'd offer it as a possible solution just in case, anyway.

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This is the case for NASA right now. Take the Space Shuttle program, for instance. The shuttle requires multi stage boosters to get to space. It can return to earth and land, but, if that "earth" didn't have civilizations with space travel capabilities, it wouldn't be able to get back into orbit, because it wouldn't have access to the boosters or fuel it needed.

However, I'm guessing you want something that wouldn't be discovered until after landing. That makes it a lot more difficult, unless you want to go the direction that others have in their answers of the spaceship getting damaged/trapped by something on the surface.

Based on the tyranny of the rocket equation, carrying enough fuel to land and take off again is far beyond our capabilities right now. Perhaps they never travel with enough fuel, but rely on the natural resources of the planet to mine/refine fuel from the planet to take off again. Perhaps it's a fusion based engine that requires tritium. Tritium has a natural abundance here in our hydrogen, but maybe there it doesn't occur naturally in high enough quantities to extract or purify it. Their planetary surveys indicated high amounts of water at the surface, so they were expecting to be able to source their fuel by extracting the hydrogen from the water and refining the tritium from that hydrogen, but that won't work anymore.

However, I found out something interesting the other day about the moon's gravitation: due to the presence of mascons, the moon's gravity is uneven, which results in there being only a few low orbits that are stable. Although we've studied this extensively with lunar probes, if this was one of the first visits to the planet, that might not be known yet.

Say the spacecraft normally consists of a large component for interplanetary travel and a small shuttle. The large barge-like component stays in low earth orbit as the shuttle lands on the planet (this is how the lunar module worked). Normally, the orbital module would just stay in orbit and wait for the shuttle to return, but due to the lumpy gravity, it crashes. The shuttle is only able to get to very low earth orbit, and even then only briefly. Without the orbital module, it will not be able to leave the planet, and it only carries enough fuel to make it to that low orbit (not leave the planet).

This could also add drama, because it might take time to figure why the orbital module crashed; was it sabotage? It would also leave them with a fully functional shuttle should they need to be rescued at some point, or which can provide assistance in combatting terrestrial problems.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some of your ideas sound plausible (at least until some other ships come around to retrieve the stranded shuttle or send some spare fuel down), but it's a wall of text. If you formatted your answer to highlight each idea as a separate section, it would make it much easier to skim over it. $\endgroup$
    – Elmy
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 6:13
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SPECIAL ENVIRONMENT

StarTrek Voyager actually explored this option TWICE and I strongly recommend you watch the following episodes (I'll provide just brief spoilers ahead):

Season 4 Episode 24 (DEMON), Voyager runs across a Class Y planet (Demon class) and two members go down to mine resources. The strange liquid on the planet copies the crewmembers and creates new ones, which are unable to leave the planet due to its special atmosphere, meaning they're basically stranded there. The doctor on the ship describes this alteration as BIOFORMING, saying that just as we tend to adapt our environment to better suit our needs so did the environment adapt those newly made crewmembers to survive strictly within its own confinements.

This storyline is further explored in Season 5 Episode 18 (COURSE: OBLIVION) when this recreated crew realizes they are actually clones of the originals and they're falling apart because the special liquid they're formed of is deteriorating.

The second example is actually explored quite early on in Voyager, Season 2 Episode 25 (RESOLUTIONS), when the captain and her first officer are stranded on a planet because they've been infected by a bite of a unique insect, so the only way for them to survive is to actually remain on the planet where the insect originates because the planet provides some kind of environmental adaptation to keep them alive. If they try to leave without being cured, they die.

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  • $\begingroup$ Both answers doesn't stop anything from reaching orbit... it may kill you if you stay there for too long but you can easily get to orbit in both cases $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Commented Jan 4, 2022 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ A bit like the last one, "Grass" by Sheri Tepper uses a plague everywhere else on the inhabited planets that is prevented and actually cured by a specific chemical variant of an amino acid which exists on on planet only. (You have to have it in everything you eat so export is not possible) $\endgroup$
    – kpollock
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 13:36
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Dense forest

The whole planet may be covered in a dense forest of huge trees with with strange intertwining branches. If something falls from above, the branches will relatively easily reversibly fold downwards, gently dampening the descent, so it is possible to land anywhere, despite the omnipresent trees. The folding is reversible, does no damage to the tree, and branches easily revert back to horizontal position once they are no longer pushed downwards.

However, if a successfully landed ship tries to take off, the troubles begin!

The branches will only fold downwards, not upwards. In fact, they are resisting any upward-pushing force, and trees and their branches turn out to be surprisingly strong. The trees receive only a minimal damage from an escape attempt, but it triggers something within them. A chemical reaction that reinforces that place, makes branches hold each other in an entangled way and causes them to secrete something nasty. It may either directly start damaging the ship (perhaps a strong acid) or it may be pheromones that will cause the local alien wildlife suddenly become hostile and see the stranded ship desperately trying to escape as a target.

Everything may seem safe and peaceful until the escape attempt.

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    $\begingroup$ I expect this issue with down-only tree branches to be resolvable with several axes, saws, shovels, and a properly situated campfire. Uses for a strong acidic (or strong alkali) solution are left for the curious chemist. (No, people, the campfire is not for burning down the trees -- it's for determining what local alien wildlife is safe and tasty to eat. What were you thinking?) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ @CodeswithHammer that may sound like a good solution... if one is using Earth tree logic. However, these are alien trees. Only resemblance with Earth trees is that they are rooted vertical living things with elongated branching parts protruding away from more central parts. Everything else may be completely different. They may have absurdly deep roots and present some additional dangers when trying to cut them down. And they may not even be flammable! They may contain various dangerous substances and other lifeforms, waiting to be conveniently released upon any attempt to damage the trees. $\endgroup$
    – Danijel
    Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ Good point. There are many unknowns regarding these tree-analogues. I'm confident that the people will figure out some way to remove the trees. Whether they will free up launch space before the ship degrades beyond usefulness is a Major Plot Element. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 14:30
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Economics

A new colony - not just in space - begins by sending expendable labourers there to set up the new place, to make it not just habitable but actually worth living in. It is not in the economic interest of the people who own the ships to bring any of those first colonists back; it would be expensive to do so, and would not benefit anyone who gets a say over it. Perhaps it might be good for morale if they could return home, but on the other hand, they knew what they signed up for; it was part of the deal.

It's perfectly plausible that those economic conditions could last for longer than a human lifetime; the only people who can go to that planet and return are rich people who would never plan on staying there in the first place, and perhaps they have no reason to visit yet. Terraforming sure takes a long time in reality.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a plot that's used (more than once, I believe) in Martha Well's Murderbot series. The typical set up would be that there's a space station that controls all access to and from the planet, and the colonists are not allowed out (they're indentured anyway, so they would have little to gain). Unsurprisingly, the operation (and the planet) are owned by corporations which aren't controlled by any state actor so they just exploit individuals at will. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 15:54
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Atmospheric "Algae" Bloom

Your rocket exhaust is food for atmospheric microbes. The robotic landers were too small to make a big difference, but the crewed lander's larger rocket tipped the balance.

The microbes feasted on your rocket's exhaust, outcompeting other microbes, and disrupted the delicate chemical balance of the atmosphere.

The increased number of dead microbes decay into something very flammable, preventing you from leaving.

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1. Unpredictable terrain.

Without initial observations from rovers and probes, certain surface conditions may be missed. Because reasons x, y, and z the explorers decided to land on this uncharted planet themselves and skipped the lengthy probe/rover first missions.

Once on the surface, certain details that could not be observed from orbit become apparent. The planet could have high level of tectonic activity with a very unstable, highly eroded surface. Once the heavy lander touches down on what seems to be level ground, become un-level due to the substrate and the very frequent tremors constantly rocking the planet. It would have once been very volcanically active, producing an abnormal amount of lava tubes, buried beneath the surface. Once the lander touches down, it immediately punches through into these tubes. It does not need to be much, just enough to make it off centered so the rockets cannot get a clean lift off.

2. Abnormal vegetation. Certain species on earth have a very rapid growth rate. Bamboo is known to grow several inches a day. If you had a species of vining plants that could grow several meters a day and is spurred on by the discharges of your space ship, the landing gear could get entangled quickly. If you delay at all to cut back the vines, they would grow exponentially. Eventually, to a point where your crew just cannot keep up with the growth enough to cut themselves free.

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Solar Storm

After the crew arrive on the surface of the planet, but before they leave, a large, persistent solar storm begins on the star of the system. The storm leads to high levels of radiation that are deflected by the planet's magnetic fields (so no one is affected on the surface), but would be extremely hazardous to any craft that leaves the protection of this field.

Stellar storms are fairly normal, and many stars do go through periods where they become more active, so the explanation is very natural, although it does require a very sudden onset of unusually persistent storms. An explanation for this could be where the star is part of a binary system with a red or brown dwarf. Suppose the red dwarf has a highly elliptical orbit (like a comet) and occasionally passes within the Roche limit of the star. This would cause it to lose mass to the star which could destabilize the star and trigger the sudden onset of a period of much greater stellar activity, which could last as long as your narrative requires.

Note that the storm does not need to be a continuous blasting of the planet's magnetic field with radiation. Regular intermittent (e.g. monthly) storms could also deter anyone from attempting to leave for fear that life support and electronic systems would be fried before they manage to escape the system when the next storm starts. People may not be willing to attempt an escape until decades after the star finally settles down.

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Fake news

The astronauts believe that they were lucky to get through the atmosphere the first time without [Insert whoever the boogie man of the day is here] shooting them down.

If they leave they will die. They await help from their fellow [Insert name of political identity here]

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If the planets electro-magnetic field is strong enough to fry the ships electronics then yes that or any other ship might be able to land (the circuits will fail when the ship enter the atmosphere but it can land using parachutes to brake it's descent), but never be able to take off. Basically the planets strong electro-magnetic field acts like an EMP grenade that fries the circuits of the ship.

Even though there might be precautions taken against this very scenario, the caveat here is that the field needs to be more strong than the material shielding the circuits (electro-magnetic shielding, similar to when you don't get electrified if lightning strikes your car).

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  • $\begingroup$ Unless the planet has some kind of incredibly powerful active EM radiation, I don't see how this is possible - a static magnetic field can at most produce some kind of Hall effect, which can't "fry" anything or cause major effects unless it's at least ~10,000 times stronger than Earth's. See engineering.stackexchange.com/questions/15115/… too. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ The landing process typically requires electronics as well - e.g. to push out the first and second set of parachutes at the exact right moment, you want to use some kind of aerodynamic steering if only to control the exact landing spot (no, don't go on that slope, let's steer 10 meters to the right to the plateau). $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @RotemShalev The earths magnetic field is not static. It is dynamic which in turn creates an electric field hence an EM field strong enough to fry the circuits. The planet is a super earth hence it supports life in abundance also the reason for it's powerful EM field! $\endgroup$
    – spectre
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ @toolforger correct but there is a built in foolproof mechanism that in case the sensors fail to deploy the the shoots, the astronauts themselves can deploy them. $\endgroup$
    – spectre
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 5:36
  • $\begingroup$ @spectre well, then the landing would be pretty much a crash landing. I wouldn't qualify this as "does not allow starting but has no other effect", though one could argue that it's correct without being technically incorrect. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 19:49
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For really off the wall:

Corrosive frogs.

This is similar to the iron-eating bacteria answer. There's a native frog-like lifeform. Mating competition is a game of king of the hill, the frog that gets on top gets the pick of mates. Unfortunately, they excrete a contact poison that corrodes spacecraft hulls.

The scouting was done on parachutes, but the real ships land on rockets--and the rockets confuse the frogs, as soon as a rocket lands all the local frogs mob it.

A rescue mission has been suggested, but how do you hover on rockets and pick up people? The rocket would kill anyone around, not to mention the design requires local water for reaction mass, it can't do orbit to surface to orbit without taking on water.

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Ever-descending lethal shells of energetic particles


TL/DR: Ever-descending lethal planet-centered spherical shells of energetic particles in the exosphere caused by extreme planetary magnetism.


An extremely powerful and reliably-periodic variable magnetic field emanates from the planet's poles, creating planet-encompassing sheets of ultra-high energy particles that will irradiate and bake any object that passes through. These sheets are separated vertically from eachother by wide "safe" regions where the particles are far fewer and far less energetic. Effectively, the planet's exosphere is like an onion. The particle sheets and the safe regions are both [say] several kilometers thick.

The weight of these particles and the varying intensity of the magnetic field both cause these sheets to descend evenly over time. When they meet the atmosphere they create enormous and very predictable (and likely very beautiful) lightning-laced aurorae, which dissipates the sheet's energy, rendering it harmless.

As the lower sheets are dissipating, new sheets are formed from particles magnetically ripped out of the atmosphere at the poles (this flow is even more deadly than the sheets). At any given time, the bottom [say] 5 or so sheets are deadly enough to prevent all passage through them. Old sheets dissipate and new ones are created [say] once every few days.

A spacecraft can reach the surface intact by carefully orbiting within a safe zone between two particle sheets, matching its rate of descent, and waiting till the sheet below dissipates itself on the upper atmosphere. Then it can enter the atmosphere and land as normal. However, this phenomenon ensures there is no possible escape trajectory that will not pass through multiple lethal sheets.

Any craft safely entering this system is likely to need to detect and deliberately avoid the sheets (unless it's ridiculously lucky). However, if you don't want to have the explorers knowingly imprison themselves forever you can possibly say:

  1. They assumed the sheets were related to flares from the system's star.
  2. They didn't understand the precisely periodic behavior of the sheets.
  3. They were desperate to land and assumed they could figure out an escape later - perhaps underestimating the sheets' lethality.

The layered effect of the sheets and safe zones could be due to a positive-feedback system where the particles are both attracted to the sheets and also help conduct the magnetic field - a good explainer of how this type of banding/layering can occur naturally is here (https://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=27163&t=magnetic-field-lines-dont-really-exist).

While it's not essential to have variation of the magnetic field, it's probably easier to explain the descending-layered-sheet phenomenon if variation exists (and it gives you additional "degrees of freedom" in your story).

Possible reasons for the reliable variation of the magnetic field could be:

  1. A very fast elliptical orbit.
  2. A moon with an elliptical orbit.
  3. Magneto-thermal resonance effects in the planet's metal core.

This phenomenon could also allow interesting weather, novel atmospheric chemistry, maybe even polar magnetic-field extremophiles.

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Lack of sufficient quantity of fuel

Getting into orbit require a lot of fuel.

If that planet cannot provide the fuel itself, the only way out would be to bring enough fuel, which would need a way bigger and expensive ship to come and be stranded in its place.

Space expedition could be used to have to resupply on site, but the survey of that planet failed to account for whatever issue about the resupply capability

For oil (the basis of our own fuel), the planet could be too young to have built up reserve of oil that can be extracted and refined. Or whatever reserve of oil that have build up are too hard to get to. Or be contaminated with something the ship cannot filter out easily or at all.

For other resources, the survey of that planet could have discovered reserve of that resource, but when trying to refuel, the reserve show themselves to be of way too small quantity, in hard to reach/exploit places, or outright of not enough quality/purity to be processed to resupply the ship.

Note that while poor quality or contamination could potentially be overcome by bringing another ship with new technologies capable of processing it, an outright lack of enough fuel would ground down the ship until a new kind of fuel is exploitable, which may not ever happen. Also note that while bringing a bigger ship to resupply the first one is theoretically possible, but would be so expensive to practically ban it.

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Electrifying animals cause problems

Some animals on this lovely planet have a mechanism similar to electric eels. They find their way into the spacecraft and in the process end up frying sensitive electronics. The unfortunate astronauts aren't able to fix the components and are stuck until someone answers their call for help- but their transmitter is broken...

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  • $\begingroup$ Spaceships are airtight so kinda hard to believe animals can just stroll right in unnoticed and from the outside spaceships have been known to get hit by multiple lightning strikes during takeoff and still make it to orbit -> history.nasa.gov/afj/ap12fj/a12-lightningstrike.html $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:32
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Flammable atmospheric layer

Landing on the planet is easy. It has a thick atmosphere, and modern probes and landers are designed to land without using large amounts of propellant. Once sufficiently slowed by aerobraking, the lander deploys a parachute and steers itself to a soft landing.

To take off, landers use chemical rockets. They are sealed until ignition, so no airborne pollutants can enter, and the lift force calculations check out. Seeing no reason to worry, our adventurers land on the planet.

The planet has a complex atmosphere. The lower atmosphere is heavy, saturated with oxygen and generally breathable, and the upper layers consist of lighter helium. Between both layers, missed by the probes (which were not actively measuring all the way down, were slowly descending on parachutes and only registered a transient course deviation that was ascribed to the weather) is a thin layer of methane, mixing with air at its lower boundary to form an explosive mixture. It was only discovered when the probes were launched on a return course to the orbital mothership and they all blew up at roughly the same height.

Meteorites are rare due to the thick atmosphere, and lightning occurs on a lower level. While natural detonations can occur, they are rare and have not been observed before.

The lander is now stuck, having no way to get through the boundary without hot engines. The only way to launch is by using a catapult, railgun or similar system to get above the methane and use rockets the rest of the way, and unfortunately our adventurers do not have an Ikea Spinlåunch flatpack in their luggage compartment.

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