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Warships in this universe travel with handwavium hyperdrive engines, but I'm trying to keep everything else plausible. How could I possibly transport troops from an orbiting warship to a planet? How can this be done efficiently and economically?

I've broken this problem down into different parts:

  • I'm not sure how to wrap my head around physics in different atmospheres, parachutes won't be too effective in a thin atmosphere.

  • We can't be moving too predictably, the troops will be shot down.
    good thing those bugs can't aim

  • It would be prohibitively expensive to send one-time use drop pods considering the number of worlds (and the number of dropships per world) to be forced into submission.

  • Each dropship should accommodate 75-100 soldiers

How do I make this work?

edit: I understand that discardable drop pods are the most practical answer, I will edit my story to make this a work in-universe. thank you for your feedback! =^w^=

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    $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 23 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ If you can handwavium up some shiedable or no-shield-needed super high ISP motors then you can descend to the surface at whatever speed is desired to keep the shell cool enough and decelerate at the end to land. Antimatter works well but shielding is "non trivial". $\endgroup$ Feb 23 at 6:06

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Hyperdrives Generally Require Inertia Dampeners

A hyperdrive, by definition, accelerates the human body at speeds that should turn you into a fine red mist... no not blood, I mean a glowing plasma cloud. Sci-fi writers throughout history have solved this problem by partnering FTL technologies with inertia dampener technologies to explain how a ship can speed up so fast. Infact, DARPA research into potential FTL engines is currently focused on a sort of inertia dampening via Alcuberrie's equations and cassimer based nanomaterials as the sole bases of Warp Drive technology. Without inertia dampeners, the plausibility of hyperdrives goes way down; so, let's assume inertia dampeners are an option in your setting as well.

The risk of getting hurt when you fall is not a function of how fast you are going. It's all about how much inertia you hit the ground with. Instead of just dropping your troops from space, you shoot them straight at the planet as fast as they can go without burning up on re-entry. Like hypersonic missiles, they screech down to the surface in a matter of seconds giving AA systems very little time to respond, but in that final moment, right before your landing ship makes contact with the ground, they engage thier inertial dampeners reducing the effective mass of your 100 ton landing ship down to a few grams. So, you hit the ground with all of the relative forces of a mach-10 slice of bread... or 100 a ton lander gently setting down... just depending on how you choose to look at it.

...but I'm trying to keep everything else plausible

Ironically, this is actually more plausible than parachutes and retro rockets. Not because we 21st century humans would do it this way, but because it is actually implausible NOT to do it this way if your civilization has any sort of hyperdrive technology.

I'm not sure how to wrap my head around physics in different atmospheres, parachutes won't be too effective in a thin atmosphere.

This will work on planets with or without atmospheres, though the maximum safe entry speed will be lower on a planet with a thicker atmosphere to prevent burnup. Once you engage your inertia dampeners, the drag caused by an atmosphere will significantly increase; so, you have to make your primary approach obeying standard physics or your landing pod will just be stopped by the air.

We can't be moving too predictably, the troops will be shot down. good thing those bugs can't aim

Your approach will be so fast that AA systems will not have time to respond. Especially on planets with thinner atmospheres where you can safely approach at faster speeds. Inertia dampeners could also be used to increase maneuverability, but only in a limited capacity. The higher you crank it up, the more air-resistance will slow you down which will decrease your terminal velocity and slow down your decent. So, a fast and mostly straight approach will probably be better than a slower high maneuverability approach. That said, dodging does not require huge course corrections, just quick ones; so, tiny pulses of your dampener coupled with small thrusts could cause your ship to jump a few meters in a random direction without significant slowdown.

It would be prohibitively expensive to send one-time use drop pods considering the number of worlds (and the number of dropships per world) to be forced into submission.

Inertia dampeners are presumably expensive pieces of advanced technology, so defiantly made to be reusable. Inertia dampeners are basically acceleration multipliers for any given input energy; so, to return to space, you won't need to use up a lot of fuel or bulky thrusters. It would only take some tiny rockets to give a ship a lot of relative thrust if you can reduce its inertia.

Each dropship should accommodate 75-100 soldiers

Not a problem. If we assume inertia dampeners are a significant part of a ship's hyperdrive system, then making sure that they have to be at least somewhat big would be a good way to make sure they are not used as a magic bullet for every problem in your story. But with inertia dampeners, you can really choose what scale you want to work at. You could fire 1000s of 1 man capsules, dozens of "buses", or you could just land your actual battle fleet to directly deploy your troops. Any scale is equally plausible, it just depends on your goals as a writer.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that's true. BSG: instantaneous jump. Babylon 5; jump into alternative dimension. Star trek; warp bubble (ship remains stationary, space moves). They aren't just go really fast. Some of those do have inertial dampeners but they are for accelerating at below light speed $\endgroup$ Feb 22 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, also those dampeners would allow for unprecedented maneuverability of that dropship while in space. But you likely underestimate the acceleration applied to that dropship when it'll dampen itself in the atmosphere; either it'll be in order of 10^5 Gs pasting insides with blood, or a tad less and the dropship would not lose all speed by atmospheric friction and splat against the ground. No sub-light speeds at reentry, that's for sure. Several dozen km/s are doable, as heat shielding would then start to be overloaded, another order up and it's all plasma again. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Feb 22 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Vesper Yes they would give unprecedented maneuverability. SG-1 addressed this when they applied Goa'uld tech to human fighters. For an added touch of plausibility, this kind of maneuverability actually lines up with many UFO sightings. And yes, I was intending speeds in the hypersonic missile range, not relativistic speed because of atmosphere, I tried to address that in paragraph 4. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 22 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardTingle Yes, technically you can handwave or ignore whatever physics you want when describing a technology that does not exist, but once you start to back your FTL engine with any sort of technobabble, inertia becomes a huge problem. Wormholes and dimension jumping would require you to either cross a spacetime gradient powerful enough to rip apart any solid matter, or the openings would have to be the size of an entire star-system which would devastate any nearby planets. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 22 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ @controlgroup Somewhere I used to keep a link explaining and naming a bunch of variations of Alcubierre drives... but I can't figure out where to find it any more. That said, I agree with you that non-self accelerating Alcubierre Equation based drives are both possible and much more probable. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 23 at 16:23
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Heatshield, chute, propulsion

Mars has an atmosphere about 1% of that of Earth. Still, we are able to soft land probes there. The landing of the Curiosity rover presents a wonderful example of how to do it, in the famous "7 Minutes of Terror" video.

In short, here is how they did it...

1 - Heatshield

The majority of energy is bled off using an ablative heatshield, on a blunt body. Ever since the Apollo era, we have known that the blunt body is very effective at this.

The "ablative" quality of the heat-shield means that it is actually being vapourised as it falls through the atmosphere. That vapour — the gasses — push the hot compressed air/plasma away from the shield, and thus provides insulation and cooling, in the same way the off-gassing of boiled candlewax prevent the wick from burning.

enter image description here

In the dark area by the wick, no combustion is taking place (image source)

Bonus: by off-centering the center of gravity, the blunt body is steerable. The slight tilt that the off-balance causes, means there is an aerodynamic force on the lander, pushing it to the side. By rotating the entire lander, the direction of push is controllable.

2 - Chute

Once the shield has done the gruntwork of slowing down, the heat shield is ejected, and a chute comes out. Granted, it is not enough to land under this chute in a thin atmosphere, but it does bleed off even more energy with its much larger surface area compared to the heat shield.

And — as with the heat shield — by applying assymetric lift to the chute, you can steer it, and change direction.

Granted, it is not very nimble, but at least its trajectory will not be determined by Galileo, Newton, and Euler alone.

3 - Propulsive landing

Once the shield has gotten the lander down to the chute's terminal velocity, the lander will have to employ propulsion to slow down... retro-rockets.

Economics

You dissed indvidual landing systesms. I would not actually be so hasty with that, because small, cheap and mass produced, can work out in favour ovoer large, complex and clunky.

But, in any case... in the proposed solution above, the cost/consumables of this system will be the heat shields, possibly the chutes, and the servicing/refurbing/replacing the retro rockets. The cost of that — to put 100 soldiers on the ground from orbit — is probably quite reasonable, if you can handwave that heat shields can be mass-produced cheaply (China actually made some heatshields of oak wood).

Summary

A universal solution will be to employ — in order — a blunt body vehicle with an ablative heat shield; a chute; a propulsive system.

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    $\begingroup$ the shuttle is also a good demonstration of how single use craft can be cheaper. even today the fastest troop deployment use disposable units, aka parachutes. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 20 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP slowing to a crawl would likely mean getting shot down. Falling in a blaze of glory signalling to everyone your location is probably not ideal either... $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ I remember reading about tries to improve the heat shield, and that wet/drenched bamboo wood cut in cross-section worked surprisingly well $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AhmedTawfik if you can steer your blaze of glory the trajectory will be much less predictable $\endgroup$
    – Seggan
    Feb 21 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Seggan Agreed. AlexP seems to have deleted his comment in any case. $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 21:33
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If you have just your technobabble hyperdrive, and everything else is 2024-era technology as we know it, then your troops are on an one-way trip down. Consider how much infrastructure you would have to assemble on the surface to get even half a dozen people back up again!

If you need to be flexible regarding the target planet, your landers can be modular and assembled in orbit:

  • A habitat and life support section.
  • Heat shields for aerobraking in an atmosphere.
  • Parachutes for slowing down in an atmosphere.
  • Rockets for landing after the parachutes are jettisoned, or on airless moons.

For a typical small planet, like Mars in our system, you need light shields, large parachutes, and rockets at the end. For a planet like Mercury, or a moon like Luna, drop the shields and parachutes and mount more rockets instead. For a typical larger planet, like Earth in our system, you need larger heat shields, smaller parachutes, and smaller/fewer rockets.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would you need heatshields when you have handwavium engines which can be used outside the atmosphere to destroy orbital velocity? Falcon-9 boosters come back from 140 km or more with no heatshields or parachutes, and have been doing so for quite some time. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 20 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ Spot on with the one way trip, the idea of a dropship a la Aliens or similar that can fly down from space and then fly back up again to a mothership in orbit with 2024 technology is the definition of "not plausible". Which is why handwavium engines for transit to/from orbit (or teleport!) are required technology for this kind of interplanetary conquest to even be conceivable. $\endgroup$ Feb 20 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, when I hear "hyperdrive" I interpret that as going "sideways through hyperspace" and not providing "real-space delta-V." $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Feb 21 at 5:19
  • $\begingroup$ If the handwavium engine can operate above the atmosphere (i.e. above ~100km for Earth) getting back is not that hard. You “only” need something like a X-15 space plane or a Blue Origin New Shepard. Either the return vehicle has its own handwavium engine which engages above the atmosphere or it can rendezvous with the mothership on a sub-orbital trajectory and then speed up again. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Feb 21 at 8:48
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The solution below is the one I used on one of my novels.


Power armor.

I assume that, by this age, your troops aren't wearing just ballistic suits - they're wearing full-blow power armor, with advanced plating and several helpful systems, like power servos for lifting those heavy miniguns and advanced computers to provide information on the battlefield.

Their power armor also has a special device attached to their backs. It opens up into a wing-like system, equipped with a booster, that helps them to control their landing to the soil below.

Special shock dampeners inside the armor make the landing somewhat more bearable, but it will still be quite blunt. But hey, you probably using genetically enhanced super soldiers, so that will be no problem for them.

Once on land, the glider ejects from their back and folds into shock shields, that they then use on land for enhanced protection.

Once those troopers secured a sizeable area, then regular dropships with personnel and equipment follow, now without fear from attacks.

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  • $\begingroup$ A similar idea is used in the Deathworlders HFY series, except their armor is unpowered (replaced by obscene amounts of muscles) and they use scifi shields for reentry instead of ablative shielding $\endgroup$
    – Seggan
    Feb 21 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Seggan Being dropped from space in power armor is a concept that has been played around with for quite some time. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (the 1959 book, not the movie) is a notable early example, but there have been numerous others. $\endgroup$
    – R.M.
    Feb 21 at 21:34
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Let's be reasonable

I get it that "predictable" drops means troops are shot down. But you're kinda suggesting that a large craft would be harder to shoot down than a bunch of individuals. I think that's a tough row to hoe. Therefore, I want to ditch both the landing craft and the parachutes.

You have hyperdrives... you don't have 2024 tech of any kind

Well... at least not outside museums. But just because we can't do something today doesn't mean it's not reasonable, believable, and even plausible in the future. I'd like to avoid what I call a "technology dichotomy" where you have one super-advanced technology and everything else is proverbial stone-age. So, what can we use?

For the landing: space elevators wires...

My good friend Johnny Worthen wrote a series of books called the Coronam series. And I'd like you to consider an idea that he uses in his books. You see, he wanted believable and enjoyable, but didn't care about scientifically provable, so he has intrasystem space ships and feudal politics with spears, a burgeoning industrial revolution, and Quakers. (Traveller, anyone? I've a character with a cutlass skill of 8)...

...and the way these space ships land troops, quite effectively, is to drop a line from space with a receiver counterweight on the end and shuttle people up and down the ship-portable space elevator. In Johnny's stories, the ships in orbit were large and the counterweight was, itself, large and all transport occurred in enclosed carriages.

Yes, there are some physics problems with this

So, let's assume the simplest and most economic case. Ships in orbit drop unobtanium wire with a basic weight on the bottom and troops hook on just like WWII paratroopers did when jumping out of airplanes and slide to the bottom. Their descent harnesses are designed to accelerate decent initially, then allow terminal velocity free fall, then brake the decent at the end. Skilled Vaterkriegs (elevator... blitzkrieg... stop laughing) are able to unhook, roll, and come up running in short order. Troops could start down the wire the moment the counterweight is captured by the planet's gravity well, causing tension on the wire (they're on the way down before it spectacularly hits the ground). Drop a dozen of these lines and you can disgorge thousands of troops in an hour.

By advocating the above, you can dispense with the transport carriage and a lot of the structural purpose of the counterweight. You're deploying troops, not recovering them (but... see below...).

The problems? I'm ignoring weather, the need for perfect geosynchronicity, the standing waveform that would show up on the wire due to the difference in velocity (think, "passage of air") between the ground and the ship, and a whole host of other problems. (Some of which could be disposed of more easily if you convert the counterweight to an obviously heavy spear tip that significantly penetrates the ground and could be simply left behind or recovered with the proper equipment later).

Realistically (I'm not a fan) there isn't an easy way to deploy large numbers of troops from space without a better-than-average chance of every one of them dying during descent. An individual soldier descending a wire has a LOT less force (F=mA) than a whole troop transport. That means the transport must move more slowly before disgorging its occupants. Big, slow target vs. small, fast target. And it would cost a lot less (I think...). Personally, I think Star Trek teleporters are the magic end of the spectrum (perfectly safe transport, limited throughput) while transport ships are the factual end of the spectrum (unsafe transport, much greater throughput) and, frankly, you want something in the middle (a balance that's scientifically plausible, even if it proves in the future to be impossible).

Useful assumptions

  • I'm assuming that your soldiers have some form of armor and that it's not a lot of trouble to attach bad-weather/no-atmosphere gear. This isn't a significant stretch from a combination of c. 2024 armor and HALO parachuting gear. (BTW, if you clicked that HALO link thinking you'd find HALO, let me say you're on the right track.)

  • I'm ignoring getting the troops off the ground. They can use the wires they came down on (that descent could store a whomping large amount of energy in the harness, which they might use to proverbially overclock their weapons instead) or they could use slower/weaker troop transports after the fact when the fighting is done. My point is, you have hyperdrives. You obviously have the means of extracting troops from the planet.

  • I'm favoring the story over the science. If you seriously restrict the solutions to science-based (meaning mandated if not proven 2024 science) solutions, you're stuck with big, slow troop transports and the need to land by bodies of water to extract hydrogen-based fuel from the water for the return trip. I'm hoping you don't want to write a documentary. So I'm ignoring the tag in favor of the tag.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love the notion of basically creating space-elevator versions of a fast-roping insertion from a helicopter in orbit. It's wonderfully nonsensical. To achieve geosynchronicity, you'd either need to be in a freefall orbit 35,700 kilometers up.. Which is a hell of a long way to be fast-roping, or you need to be effectively hovering in the atmosphere, still several miles up. It's brilliant, but wonderful nonsense with even the slightest examination of the scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Feb 21 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan And that's why I said, Personally, I think Star Trek teleporters are the magic end of the spectrum (perfectly safe transport, limited throughput) while transport ships are the factual end of the spectrum (unsafe transport, much greater throughput) and, frankly, you want something in the middle (a balance that's scientifically plausible, even if it proves in the future to be impossible). This site has little purpose if the only valid answers are those that are scientifically possible and practical today. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 21 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ I love the idea of using portable space elevators to set up relatively cheap two-way supply lines between the invasion fleet and the surface. Since those lines will draw fire, it might be prudent for the first troops to go down fast, temporary, one-way wires. Their main job will be to find and secure anchor points for heavier two-way elevators. As the space invaders improve their footing and gain control of larger areas, the elevator links will get heavier and more permanent—like building a bridge by using light ropes to pull across heavier ones. $\endgroup$
    – Vectornaut
    Feb 22 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ [continued] Of course, if the first troops don't manage to secure any anchor points for two-way links, the fleet won't have a way to bring them home. But it won't need one—because there won't be anything left to bring home. $\endgroup$
    – Vectornaut
    Feb 22 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH The problem with this notion of fast-roping down orbital tethers is that the pretence of reality isn't good enough. The things can't function the way they're described at all. Transporters/Teleporters have a veil of science-magic to conceal their impossibility, and Orbital Shuttles have some Required Secondary Powers (SSTO, extreme fuel-efficiency beyond all reason, that kind of thing) but are basically understood as an extension of stuff we have now. Orbital fast-roping has no such crutches, you might as well say they hitch their ropes to passing clouds, it'd be more realistic. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Feb 23 at 12:13
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My answer here builds upon MichaelK's and Mermaker's answers.

You will have drop pods in a way. They will be bullet-shaped and large-motorcycle to medium-SUV sized. Each carries one to four soldiers.

They have small lateral thrusters for maneuvering, but that's it.

When the time comes to land, soldiers enter their assigned pods. The troop commander signals that everyone is ready by saying "I am [commander name here] and this is Jackass". The pods are then loaded into the weapon bays.

The ship turns so that it is pointing either radial or anti-radial. The important thing is that weapons point retrograde. Then the ship sends a broadside volley. This will get all the ammunit... Er, space marines inside the pods in a low orbital speed, which puts then into a collis... I mean, landing trajectory.

The lateral thrusters in each individual missile then run the following algorhitm every half-second:

  1. Roll a D6 die;
  2. Turn the thrusters at 100% at the direction corresponding to the roll (prograde, retrograde, radial, anti-radial, normal, antinormal).
  3. ???
  4. Profit!

This will get the few thousand or so soldiers in their hundreds of capsules into a human-brownian-motion-machine, spreading them all over the place and making it 1% harder for electronic targetting systems to hit them. I hope they've brought decoys for the missiles, and sunscreen for the lasers.

Once they are deep enough that air friction-burning is no longer an issue into the atmosphere, the capsules self-disintegrate. The soldiers will then steer with wingsuits. No parachutes allowed - use power armor to airbrake when really close to the ground.

If there is no atmosphere, then each unit should have a jetpack that is able to land them (doing so safely is optional).

Once the objective is completed, the mothership can land and collect the survivors back.

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    $\begingroup$ That is not Jackass... that is Badass, and I like it!! Especially the wing-suit final descent. I am curious if an aerospike of particularly heat resistant material could work, like a wolfram alloy that can withstand the temperatures of re-entry. Yes, this is kind of counter-intuitive as we want to bleed energy and the aerospike lessens hypersonic drag. Then again, makes for a longer and smoother ride, until speed has dropped enough for the shell to start soaking heat without baking the doughboys inside. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Feb 21 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK yeah, I believe with scenarios like in the question, we tend to engineer this as a civillian landing from space. But for a military strike, spreading your forces around like this means the enemy has to spread their defences too, and if you move faster than the defenses - after all, you're incoming from space - you can concentrate on a point faster than the enemy too. $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ It make me wonder... if you use man/group sized pods, and the aerospike... and as such reduce the braking force... then the signature of the re-entry should diminish too, right? Less energy expended per kilometer travelled equals less signature. Then again... I can imagine this is very different depending on which enemy is defending. Some are perhaps still at the black powerder and flintlock equivalent stage... while others just just blow away a pod swarm like they are playing a video game. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Feb 21 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK you will require more total vehicle mass for the same amount of units, but you will spread them far and wide, so tje signature will indeed bw different. You will also take much more to stop. A single vessel can be taken down in a single hit. A thousand soldiers spread over a few square miles will take a lot of fire in a lot of directions to stop, or maybe a nuke if the defendant is suicidal. By the way, I saw something like this in the Old Man's War series second book, The Ghost Brigades. $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me quite a bit of the ZOCOM raiders drop pods from Command & Conquer 3. Amazing game! $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Feb 22 at 1:05
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Jetpacks

Each of your ground troops should have a jetpack. So you just eject them from orbit. No need to complicate.

What about anti-air defence you say? If you are doing the invasion you should glass those defences from orbit. There is absolutely no reason for sending any ground troops on the planet until majority of resistance is crushed. Depending on the reason for invasion there is no need for ground forces anyway. To quote the wisdom of the ages:"Nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.".

As for the ground forces themselves: use disposable robots. Even if somehow the enemy surprises you with some anti-air capacity held hidden in reserve the invading force wouldn't care. Those shock-troops are disposable and cheap. And unlike human soldiers you don't need years of training to make more (nor would it impact morale and domestic outrage if you lose a legion of 5). Plus no matter the armor a robot will always be more robust than human soldier. So you need to care less about the forces and temperatures of re-entry and landing.

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Insertion Phase :

Drop capsule designed to look like debris, dropping in a debris cloud. Ablative and flaking away on command.

Steerable Slowdown Phase:

Graphene chutes, they provide surface to catch thin atmospheric resistance. They can be selectively electrostatic charged and thus the strands can be shaped into a steering surface. In theory if big enough it could float over a similar charged ground surface indefinitely. (spiders "fly" that way)

Landing Phase:

A huge blowup hamster-ball that can turn sticky on demand and split in two half's, filled with Polyurethane foam provide add-hoc shelter if needed.

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Don't transport troops from orbit to planet's surface, instead move the surface to warship's access ramp level.

According to this definition of hyperdrive, it's ocasionally called warp drive. Warp drive allows the warship to contract and expand distances at will. Basically warships are stationary with relation to that manipulated spacetime. Contract orbital altitude and velocity to zero, once done release distortion and exit warship by foot.

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Your dismissal of discardeable drop pods is flat out wrong

Because the alternatives are systems meant to survive over and over again, to maybe even fly back up to the ship and so on.

Anything single use however can partially burn up, collapse/semi-explode on impact (saving you even the cost of resealeable doors) and so on.

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