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So here's my rough idea for how you could basically send one large ship with a crew of a few thousand (at least ten thousand, maybe forty) to establish a colony on an Earth-like world:

First step is to build a ship. For the purposes of this thought experiment it will be an FTL ship but this is honestly inconsequential. The ship should be a few hundred meters long and shaped like a football with two segmented tori attached to the main shaft. The bulk of the ship will be used to house food, supplies, and the 10-40k freeze-dried (obviously not literally) colonists, who will be hibernating for the vast majority of the trip. The tori meanwhile pull double-duty as warp drives and as prefabricated hab modules.

Second step is arrival. Upon reaching the planet, the ship will decelerate and discard its tori, which will break apart into their individual segments and begin a controlled descent into the atmosphere with the aide of parachutes. The ship itself, meanwhile, will allow gravity to do its job and take it down to the surface ahead of the modules, for reasons explained in step 3. Once the modules have reached a safe speed and height from the LZ, the parachutes will detach and the modules will drop. Once they've landed, they'll begin automated self-assembly into various utilities like habitats, drilling platforms for mining, storage units, generators, and ideally a functioning power grid.

The third and final step is actually clearing the LZ and properly positioning your modules. This is why the main body of the ship is allowed to descend faster than the modules. Once near the surface, the ship will engage its retrorockets to rapidly decelerate. The resulting heat and thrust will clear the immediate area around the ship of vegetation and other obstructions, and on an oxygen-rich planet like the one in my story, the resulting forest fire will hopefully clear not just an LZ, but burn down a large enough area of forest to begin establishing a proper city or town, with the main shaft of the ship (now embedded into the ground like a skyscraper) serving as its center. With the area thus cleared, the modules can descend and begin assembly of the colony infrastructure on clear, open ground.

Does all of this sound feasible or logical? Are there any blatant violations of logic or physics I should be wary of? Most importantly, would the forest fire caused by the descent of a spaceship onto an oxygen-rich planet merely clear a few kilometers of forest as planned, or would it spread out of control and scorch a much larger area?

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  • $\begingroup$ "Most importantly, would the forest fire caused by the descent of a spaceship onto an oxygen-rich planet merely clear a few kilometers of forest as planned, or would it spread out of control and scorch a much larger area?" - This heavily depends on the specifications of your forest, much more so than the oxygen amount in the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 22 '16 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ I remember a documentary about the problems of landing the latest Mars rover. How because the air is very thin, parachutes don't work like on earth, so they invented the sky crane. With something as heavy as the ship described it might be better to land in water, or send a team ahead to add a few tons of corn starch to a lake to make the landing softer $\endgroup$ – Mikey Mouse Jun 23 '16 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ It would be well worth the effort to leave a few satellites in orbit, and dropping all the segments at once is stupid, better to descend them one at a time so you can land them much closer together. Also why burn a forest, forests are full of wood which can be used as building material and fuel they also tend to have crappy soil for farmers. $\endgroup$ – John Sep 15 '18 at 15:21
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Sounds pretty reasonable to me up to the landing.

I would suggest breaking your main part (with the freeze-dried colonists) apart, too, in order to land properly. Otherwise you've got something about as as intelligent as a Star Destroyer trying to land on a planet. Deep space vessels normally are not built in a fashion that enables a safe atmospheric entry. And that is not because they don't survive the temperatures of atmospheric friction, but because of the gravity forces and the inability to fly more gracefully than a brick of lead. Since you already got rid of your tori, you don't even have any engines anymore on your brick of lead to brake properly (not that using interstellar engines to brake inneratmospheric velocity is any kind of a good idea -- see the section for Propulsion systems on Project Rho)

Of course, if your FTL (or whatever) drive uses gravity manipulation, then just forget the above paragraph -- unless there is a reason why you can't use the gravity drive close to a planet. Just lower your ship as quickly as you want (you should probably not try to overtake your falling torus segments in case one decides to land on your ship) and go for a perfect touchdown as smooth as a landing feather.

Clearing the LZ: You should neither count on forest fires (ever tried to set a rain forest alight? Or seen what kind of a mess a burned-down forest really is?) nor on finding a nice lush and green meadow. What you should do is land on a surface as hard, dry and flat as possible, with as little vegetation as possible. Sahara destert -- not so good because of all the sand, but the African Savannah? The Jordanian highlands? Or Nevadah/Utah? I would go there.

Seems a little bit counter-productive to settle in a desert-like environment if you've got farmer-colonists, but it has several advantages:

  1. Very little icky and potentially highly dangerous vegetation around for your colonists to fall afoul of until they've got proper biological data
  2. Very high visibility so that potentially highly dangerous fauna doesn't surprise your colonists by jumping out from behind the next tree
  3. Generally good weather with little precipitation that would hinder visibility and your very ecologically friendly solar collectors (at today's standard one of the easiest ways of generating electricity)
  4. Very easy to deploy 4-wheel vehicles to help with setting up, exploring the surroundings, etc.. Your robots that set up your mines etc. will love you for not letting them slog through a rust-inducing swamp / rivers
  5. Endless plains to expand upon if you need more space, and probably very few animals / aliens wanting that same land

Everything else can be started from there, geographic and biological science, finding out where best to set up the farms, etc.. But to have an easily securable, defendable home-base? Priceless.

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I see it being feasible, but not terribly practical. There's too much emphasis on speed. It feels more like a combat zone insertion than a colonization effort.

Colonies are operating on the timescale of years and decades. There's very little disadvantage to spending a few days, if not a few months, in orbit to identify the best approach to building a colony. Send down modules slowly, right where you need them.

If you want to go with the forest fire approach, my recommendation would be to have your colony choose that approach as a deviation from the plan. Something went wrong with their original plan to clear space, and they needed to improvise. If you think about it, a society with interstellar travel and self assembling modules is not going to have much of a challenge hacking down a few trees without causing a forest fire. However, if something were to go wrong with the original plan, they might choose the more destructive approach.

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  • $\begingroup$ This actually sounds awesome for "War Colonization." Imagine being able to deploy a self sufficient and somewhat defensible bastion behind enemy lines in short order. Or, for that matter, a fuel depot that can start gathering and refining supplies from day 1 of the colony. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Jun 22 '16 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ Well, it's a "shake 'n bake" colony. It's meant to be quick and immediately self-sufficient because it's catering to corporate interests (in this case mining). The faster it's up and running, the better. Especially on a planet that may have hostile alien life. $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Jun 22 '16 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Z.Schroeder If its corporate interests, then profits matter. The kind of redundancy and tolerances which permit a military insertion in the heat of battle on short timetables are also the kind of redundancies and tolerances which make us spend $600 on a hammer for the military (yes, I know its a myth, but work with me). A corporation is going to be interested in ROI... so all the extra expense required to do a combat drop is going to have to earn its investment. Make sure your readers feel like the corporations have done the cost benefit analysis, predicting how much lost income... $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jun 22 '16 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ ... could arise from spending an extra day to do the job smoothly. If the readers don't get that feeling (from the way corporate individuals are acting during the insertion), the insertion will feel forced, and any negative consequences of things going wrong will be treated as "well, you shouldn't have been so wastefully fast." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jun 22 '16 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Z.Schroeder Adding to what Cort Ammon wrote, keep in mind that a low orbit's period will be on the order of a few hours at most (somewhat depending on altitude). You will also be able to observe the planet quite well for a while as you approach it. All of that provides ample time for observation and contemplation of options without needing to rush everything at the last minute. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jun 23 '16 at 11:17

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