Aaron Pollyea’s Science Academy—Terraforming

Terraforming is something that I’ve written about in more than one science fiction universe (for what I’ve written before, see The Sciences Division rulebook pgs 92-93). It mixes a couple of my favorite things together: astronomy (and by extension planetology) and physics, with a significant dash of high-tech shenanigans on top for zest.

Terraforming is something that has been around in the Star Trek universe since the beginning chronologically speaking, with episodes of Enterprise mentioning the terraforming of Mars in 2154 at least and humans could already walk on its surface with nothing more than warm clothes and minimal breathing equipment. With the rapid expansion of humanity through the rest of the 22nd and 23rd centuries, terraforming would have been common place (though not mentioned in the Original Series). Terraforming is often mentioned in the Next Generation era.


Throughout this article I’ll use the world ‘terraform’, but that may not necessarily mean humans have made it Earth-like. It could also mean Vulcans making a world more Vulcan-like, Andorians making a world colder and more like their homeworld, etc.

An easier way of thinking about it is making a world more like a standard class-M planet, even if it already was Class-M to begin with, but not exactly ideal for colonization. An example might be a lush Class-M world that seems to be perfect for humans, but all the plants and animals use reverse sugars and proteins from what we do, meaning nothing on the surface could give us nourishment. Some introduction of species from other worlds might make life there a bit better.

I should probably start with talking about what kinds of worlds can be terraformed, and try not to make it too complex for people.

The simplest test is the planets mass. If the planet is large enough to hold an atmosphere, then technically you can terraform it. The limiting factor is how much energy you want to put into making the planet habitable. As an example, both Mars and Venus could theoretically be terraformed. Mars is cold and small, but it’s ‘easy’ to warm it up and add an atmosphere. On the other hand, Venus is almost as large as Earth so it can hold a lot of atmosphere (and it does) to the point that getting rid of it will be more difficult than giving Mars an atmosphere. Additionally, while Venus can be cooled down as easily as Mars can be warmed up, the fact that Venus’ day is actually longer than its year means that making it have a somewhat regular day night cycle would take a significant amount of time and energy to speed up its rotation.

All that being said, even mass doesn’t have to be the end all of determining if a world can be made Class-M. Even small worlds the size of the Moon or even Pluto could, given time and effort, be made to be lush gardens. It’s just not worth that effort, even with the technology of the 24th century. To do so when so many easier and larger worlds are available would be a waste of effort. Just remember that those worlds can still have settlements, underground facilities, and even fairly large cities. The Moon is a great example.

How can you bring terraforming into your game or allow your players to explore it as a concept?

Start with the basics of it:

  • Is a character from a terraformed colony world?
  • Was that world originally lifeless, or did it have an ecosystem close enough to the end result that the character is used to a fairly alien environment due to its lifeforms?

The Federation may shy away from changing worlds that already have an extensive ecosystem on it out of concern for destroying the native species, but a species joining the Federation may have already colonized and terraformed multiple worlds that already had life on them and made them more habitable for themselves.

  • Growing up on the world, did the character have a lot of experience with terraforming devices or technology, or perhaps odd biological systems?
  • Another way to bring terraforming into your game is the first steps that would be done to warm or cool a world to be more comfortable, the construction of solar shades or orbiting mirrors.

A solar shade would orbit closer to the planets star, usually at a Lagrange point. Lagrange points are areas of gravitational stability that make objects placed there stay there rather than falling towards a body in the system. These solar shades would easily cool a world as well as be able to provide incredible amounts of solar generated power to orbital facilities or to the planet itself.

Orbiting mirrors to warm a world could also be placed at a Lagrange further away from the planet and reflect light down onto the world’s night surface. Bringing these into your game is actually quite simple. From the difficulties of constructing objects of this size in what would be a fairly undeveloped area of a star system, to defending such valuable facilities against predation by criminals or attacks by hostile powers.

An example of extreme terraforming.

Even long after a world has been successfully terraformed, these facilities would still be in use, and many colony worlds across the Federation would have them in order to maintain a stable environment.

Terraforming a world that has little water on it may require more active methods than building huge structures in orbit. As seen in Enterprise, throwing ice rich comets at a world is actually a good way of not only delivering water to said world, but also thickening the atmosphere and warming the environment up. As most star systems would have an icy Oort cloud if they formed from ‘metal rich’ nebula, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers would have stations deep in the Oort cloud of the system, gathering comets, processing out unneeded ices, and then launching them in-system to do what I like to call kinetic terraforming. These facilities, in the wrong hands, could just as easily bombard already inhabited worlds in the system with large bodies, or even target orbiting facilities around worlds.

Another step in terraforming involves seeding a world with life.

genesisUnlike the Genesis Device, normal terraformers would seed oceans with algae to produce oxygen when there is usable CO2 around to convert. From there building a planetary ecosystem will involve numerous experts, decades of work, and the introduction of hundreds or thousands of different species designed to solidify the world into having a self-sustaining system.

What issues can a Starfleet vessel intercede with on a world in this stage of terraforming, beyond remote terraforming teams utilizing plants and animals on a new world and all the problems that can raise?

  • Mysterious deaths, strange geological activity, odd interacts between the actual environment and the animals that will need an outside eye to see where the problem is.
  • Maybe even some ‘cross-pollination’ between an undiscovered native species and introduced species can make some interesting new diseases rear their ugly heads.

The introduction of animals may be a distant goal if the planet doesn’t have an atmosphere easily converted. While I have suggested before to people that given an unlimited power supply that industrial replicators could just churn out a breathable atmosphere, in most cases that sort of power generation isn’t really going to be available on a massive scale that could change an entire planet’s atmosphere.

This is where big chemical processors would come into play. One such way is to get oxygen and water out of rocks by reacting them with other chemicals. One such process has already been devised for the Moon by reacting lunar regolith with hydrogen and solar power to produce water, then another step to convert some of that water into breathable oxygen.

Other processes are also possible. Regardless, these facilities would represent a wealth of resources and a heavy investment of time and energy by the Federation, and could be seen as easy targets by criminal elements. As these facilities would be remote due to the more hostile environment, Starfleet vessels may not be always nearby.

Regardless of all the technology and facilities that revolve around terraforming, there will always be a need for Starfleet vessels to survey strange new worlds. Finding the next world that the Federation can turn into a Class M colony world for its citizens will always be of some importance, and the dangers involved in exploration that we’ve seen across multiple series should give you ample enough ideas of what to fill your games with.

Just make sure your characters always check for particles of preanimate matter stuck in the matrix!





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