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The Intergalactic Colonization Authority has a problem. They've recently discovered this awesome planet they want to colonize, but it's located in a part of the universe most of the rest of the civilized races deem to be off limits. If the colony is detected, certain organizations will be more than happy to erase the colony from existence.

The ICA has looked at ways to block signals emanating from the planet without much luck, and have elected to rely heavily on their selection process for who is allowed to even know the colony exists, let alone go to it. While they can reliably control the beginning of the journey to the planet and the conditions at the planet, they need a way to ensure that the transport vessels cannot be tracked remotely, or at least that their destination remains a mystery. (Following such a vessel would always reveal the destination, so is explicitly excluded from this topic.)

We've previously discussed reasonable means of detecting spacefaring vessels during warfare (which can easily be extrapolated to non-military endeavors), and we know that stealth in space has no non-magical solution.

So, barring magic and handwaves, is there any technology or tactic that can be employed to conceal a spacefaring vessel's final destination from a third party and, if so, what is it?

Note that, while both magic and FTL technology exist in this universe, neither is a welcome answer to this question. This question is purely concerned about levels of technology that we can currently employ or theorize.

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    $\begingroup$ "Its located in a part of the universe..." Without some serious FTL, I don't know how you are going to get anywhere on a universal scale in the next million years. I think you need more explanation about a. how far away is this potential colony; b. how far the colony is from the other civilized races, and c. how fast you can get there/how FTL works $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 25 '17 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion To my mind, FTL travel is merely an extrapolation of sub-light travel. As I haven't put much thought into which model(s) of FTL I want to use in my universe, I'm not looking for answers that involve FTL models. Additionally, a reasonable answer should be capable of being extrapolated to any meaningful distance short of requiring FTL to make travel worthwhile. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 25 '17 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ Well if it takes you 10,000 years to get to the new colony, most of the people who spotted you going there would be dead, or at the very least bored of following your progress. That might solve your problem. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 25 '17 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ If your ship is travelling faster than light, then just put in a dog-leg. If the ship is travelling faster than light then it couldn't be actively tracked by radar and any emissions from the ship wouldn't reach an observer until the ship had already arrived. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Jan 25 '17 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre the reason your method of going there matters is because it dictates what angles of attack are given to an observer. E.g. Slipspace travel will be different to superfast normal space will be different to instantaneous displacement will be different to you get the idea... Each of these kinds of FTL travel have their own way of getting detected and preventing other venues of detection $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Jan 25 '17 at 17:51
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Paint it black.

More specifically: Space is Big. Really big. No, bigger than that. Really really really big.

If your ship isn't actively thrusting or doing anything to draw attention then the chance of it being seen is tiny, just set out on a conventional route with a nice big ship. At a suitable point well away from detection systems and anything that might be monitoring local traffic in an inhabited system detach a smaller ship from the larger one and send that one to your planet for colonization.

You might want to make a gravitational slingshot or two to change your route without having to do any noisy (and potentially visible) acceleration. Pick an uninhabited star and swing around that to get a mostly-thrust-free change of direction away from the route the decoy ship is taking for only a small initial shift yourself.

You've seen how hard it is for rescuers to find a small boat at night on our oceans, imagine the oceans are a hundred times bigger and instead of a boat they are looking for a rubber duck. The difference is still bigger than that but you are starting to get the idea.

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    $\begingroup$ It's hard to find small boat on the oceans because the horizon limits the viewing distance. That's not a problem in space. Sorry, but there ain't no stealth in space. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Werneck Jan 27 '17 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ @PedroWerneck: At interstellar distances there certainly is. We can only see extrasolar planets because of the dimming effect they have on their stars, spotting a tiny spaceship against that much void is impossible. Once you consider that the surface area of the sphere increases as a square with distance but the ship is only outputting a finite amount of radiation you quickly come to realise that it's actually pretty hard to spot any body that's radiating less energy than a star or isn't big enough to have noticeable gravity. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 27 '17 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ @PedroWerneck not stealth, just being inconspicuous. If nobody is looking at the very tiny bit of space you're in, they're never going to know you're even there. So make yourself look like just another uninteresting bit of rock floating in space, and you're not going to attract attention. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jan 27 '17 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ The point this answer makes is being silent. However, once you start emitting radiations (thrusters, comunications, etc) you can be tracked, and in space you only need to find something once to make very precise calculations of where it is going. $\endgroup$ – BgrWorker Jan 27 '17 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting "Sir, three months ago our routine parallax comparison on our routine spherical sky surveys from our L1 and L2 sensor arrays found a tiny heat source not far away from ICA station 1. A week ago the heat emissions increased considerably and it changed trajectory. The computer flagged it as "not just an uninteresting bit of rock floating in space". I took the liberty of checking the records closely, and the trajectory and velocity suggests it was launched from ICA-1 right after L1 and L2 surveyed the location. Sir... it's an ICA spacecraft. They're going to the forbidden planet!" $\endgroup$ – Pedro Werneck Jan 27 '17 at 18:33
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The planet itself should be fine, any emissions it makes will take years to reach the closest civilization, and even then it takes pretty high powered directional transmissions to be easily detected and a really large array to pinpoint the source. Of course with FTL a single ship could make it's own VLA by jumping around to triangulate the emissions, but that is a lot of work, does anyone care? Depending on your technology base the colony itself may not be detectable unless someone is actively searching for signs of colonization (and that still has light years of delay).

The area being "off limits" implies there is some level of monitoring or patrolling, else the prohibition is purely for show. So if the colony knows how this monitoring is being done, they can limit their exposure to that method. Things like an energy burst when coming out of hyperspace, massive thermonuclear detonations to terraform a planet, altering the orbits of large bodies within the solar system, etc will probably be tells that can't easily be hidden, but perhaps the colonists know the schedule of the monitoring agency so they know how what windows they can use to avoid observation, alter records to hide their activities, or at least know how long they have before anyone comes a knocking.

As for sending ships to and from the colony, they can use a random path, the crew can be fed false information (with just an AI or single navigator that knows the true route) and so long as no one can record the starfield around the destination planet (or access some sort of galactic GPS system that has been running for the hundreds of years necessary to get signals to cross interstellar space), the location should be fairly safe. "No stealth in space" really only applies to local space, once you get far away it becomes very difficult to track things that aren't pumping out lots of energy, or at least you have to use big telescopes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Related to the first sentence, I suggest reading How far away would an alien civilization need to be for us to not notice them? to get an idea of how difficult it would be. Full disclosure: The accepted answer is my own. (Of course, FTL travel, even if inconvenient, does change things pretty radically as compared to our world, but at that point someone is already out looking specifically anyway.) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jan 27 '17 at 10:28
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As you already know, in a realistic setting with existing or theoretical near-future technology it's impossible to conceal your presence and your destination from an observer who's actively looking for you. With FTL that might be trivial or also impossible, depending on how exactly your FTL works, but if you want to leave FTL out of this, it's impossible. It's just a matter of time for any spacecraft to be detected. It doesn't mean the spacecraft will be identified, but it will raise a few eyebrows and call for a closer look.

So, it's impossible to keep your destination a mystery, specially if they are actively looking for anyone trying to get there. If there's FTL, it's hard to not be intercepted on the way there once they know about it.

I can't imagine a "generic" scenario that could work based on the information you gave, but I think your answer lies in some form of deception: counter-intelligence, disinformation, bribery, sabotage, distractions, etc, probably a combination of those. You can't keep your destination secret, so you have to make it look like you're going there for some reason other than to build a colony.

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Depending on how your FTL method works and the methods used for detecting the vessels, there are a few solutions to masking such a ship from detected.

Here's a fairly simple solution. If it enters any kind of parallel space (hyperspace and the like), then the ship may appear to not exist anywhere between its departure and arrival points. Depending on these other factions' understanding of this parallel space, they may not have the means to detect it. Maybe the ICA's race uses this parallel space while other races have their own FTL methods.

Another idea I had was to use FTL to get to the outskirts of whatever detection range is set up. Attach the ship to an asteroid and accelerate the asteroid to a good sub-light speed before entering detection range and put the crew into cryogenic sleep to minimize what there is to detect. Even try to manipulate the electromagnetic field to make it more convincing. Crew comes out of sleep as the "asteroid" makes a pass by said planet and breaks away from the asteroid.

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  • $\begingroup$ Please note that the question specifically requests answers not involve magic, handwaves, or FTL technology. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 25 '17 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ He specified that there is FTL, he just didn't want it to be used as a hand-wave solution. Though, it seems I may have misread that last paragraph in retrospect. I offered the second solution in case the first one was unsatisfactory due to it simply relying on one group having a better understanding of an FTL method than another. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jan 25 '17 at 21:47
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Make the vessel a hollowed out asteroid, set it on a slowboat trajectory with an engine cluster to slow down to capture speed hidden in the rock (you'd need to get some people go EVA to remove the rock when it gets there, probably), and just let them drift.

Sure it's going to take you a few thousand years (if not more) to get there, but nobody is going to bother tracking a lump of uninteresting randome space rock for that long. Unless it was seen speeding up to escape velocity from the asteroid belt and even at that time recognised as being a colony ship heading to your forbidden planet, it'd never be envisioned to be anything of the kind by any race capable of and willing to launch a military expedition to do anything about it. It's so ridiculously primitive, nobody in their right mind would do it :)

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