Terraforming probes are devices designed to alter the environment and native life on a planet, usually for the purpose of making it more habitable to the species that launched the probe.
The most commonly encountered terraforming probes in known space are those launched by the ancient Terrans of the Sol system, and the early Ascendancy. These probes were first developed and launched in 57 PT as clusters of autonomous robotic spacecraft, designed to travel at high sublight speeds and transform the environment of planets prior to the arrival of the sleeper colony ships launched in the two centuries prior. These probes typically travel at speeds of 0.95c, and the initial wave has travelled over 3,500 light-years from the Sol system.
Clusters of terraforming probes were launched indiscriminately from Sol for almost 400 years after they were developed, directed at practically every star where traces of carbon were detected in its emission spectrum. Some later probe clusers contained artificial intelligence systems programmed to identify additional candidate stars in their travels, and launch probe clusters at them. Terraforming probes can be found on a huge number of planets, oftenmade habitable by their action, but vast numbers are still travelling through interstellar space, targeting new candidate worlds all the time.
If you encounter a terraforming probe, either on a planet or in space, extreme care is advised in dealing with them.
Although they went through over 20 different iterations over the course of their production, the overall design remained the same.
Probe clusters are staged vehicles, clumped together and designed to split apart into smaller clusters and then their individual constituent probes. They would have originally been propelled to near-lightspeed by massive hydrogen fusion engines, which would have almost universally detached when they got up to speed near the Sol heliopause, and in some cases returned using more efficient ion propulsion. Probe clusters were typically attached to each other via a light connective structure, which allowed communication and coordination, often overseen by a programmed intelligence. The overall structure of the probe clusters was expected to cruise through the interstellar void, and as a result has very little shielding or protective elements.
Once it drew near to a candidate system, the guiding intelligence would cause a number of clusters to break off and divert towards it. The probe clusters would use directional thrusters to plot a course into the system that allowed stage gravitic deceleration, ending in the orbit of the target planet. Deceleration from 0.95c using gravity effects alone would often take tens or hundreds of years. Once it had slowed down enough and achieved orbit around a planet, the probe cluster would break apart and send probes falling towards the planet. Probes would then impact at strategic locations around the planet and deploy their terraforming systems. Each probe cluster contains a variety of probe types, each with a number of different systems for affecting the atmosphere, biosphere and geosphere of a planet. Once they have deployed, probes maintain a linked network to coordinate their activities and compensate for irregularities or the loss of individual probes.
Individual probes tend to be cylindrical and heavily shielded to protect from re-entry. They vary in size from about half a metre to ten metres in diameter, depending on the specific type and probe iteration. Most probes are designed to anchor themselves in hard substrate, and have tapered forms (usually coated with depleted Uranium or other super-dense elements) designed to penetrate the ground on landing. Once they impact the surface, they may unfold specialised equipment such as solar collectors, mirrors, sampling equipment or stabilisers, but the majority of their equipment is internal. The controls and intelligence core are usually located towards the top, where they are less likely to be damaged on impact.
The activation of a network of terraforming probes unleashes a chaotic cascade of environmental effects, as massive energies are unleashed across the planet's surface. Rapid, macro-scale climate change, generation or alteration of atmospheric gases, and vast energy being directed into the planet's crust are only part of the process. Some probes release microorganisms and viruses that become established in their vicinity, or mutagens that alter existing life that might be present on the planet. In the later stages, some probe designs germinate Terran biota, sometimes accelerating their development to varying degrees.
Once it has begun, the terraforming process typically takes about 100 years, although the exact timescale varies by local conditions, the number of probes that survuve to deploy and the degree of opposition from any indigenous life. By the end of the process, the entire planet has usually been completely transformed, typically into something resembling a temperate pre-collapse Terran environment. Existing life and any civilisation present is typically both transformed and devastated by the process.
Ancient Terran Probes can be extremely dangerous, for a variety of reasons.
The Ascendancy and Free Union have, in some areas, expanded past the distance which their original probes have reached. Additionally, candidate worlds have been discovered that probes never encountered. Both Terran Factions still build terraforming probes, although they are now deployed directly to planets by starships rather than robotic drone clusters.
These more modern probes do follow similar design principles to the original iterations, although their speed and safety have been somewhat improved since that period.
Other species have developed their own versions of Terraforming Probes as they took to the stars, but none were deployed on such a large and indiscriminate scale as the Terrans.
The Dominion employ fleets of crewed ships to terraform worlds, and have a preference for macro-scale activities such as asteroid or comet redirection, orbital solar mirrors, atmospheric particle seeding and tectonic resonators. The act of coordinating a major terraforming effort is seen as a powerfully heroic undertaking in Dominion society and religion.
The Commonality use their facility with biotechnology to terraform worlds. Commonality probes are typically deployed on barren worlds, where they release vast numbers of engineered microorganisms, who perform a variety of tasks including heat generation, atmosphere conversion and development of a substrate for more specialised organisms. The Commonality terraforming process is considerably slower, and can take several centuries to complete. Additionally, it performs poorly on worlds with established life, and the Commonality tends to avoid terraforming such worlds directly.