Star systems may also have valuable deposits of minerals, but traditionally those are prospected by private corporation or independent miners — not by quasi-military agencies. In some science fiction novels (notably Andre Norton's "The Sargasso of Space") the Scout service will hold auctions for the right to establish colonies or to have monopolies of any trade goods on newly discovered planets. The former type is of interest to potential colonists, the latter is of interest to interstellar traders (both megacorporations and independent free traders).
Sometimes surveys will come in waves, with grand names like "The Third Uranographic Survey". Otherwise the surveying will be a constant low-level effort.
- ASTRONOMICAL SECTION: locates unexplored systems and supplies a list to the First-In Scouts
- FIRST-IN SCOUTS: performs a quick search of an unexplored system for possible colony planets. Also keeping an eye open for anything anomalous, valuable, or cosmically dangerous. Supplies a list to the Exploration Section and special alerts to the Astromilitary.
- EXPLORATION SECTION: performs an in-depth survey of possible colony planets. And investigates anomalous or valuable sites. Supplies a list of certified planets to the Worldtamer Section. Rich mining sites are auctioned off to commercial mining corporations. Actual anomalies are reported to the Paleotechnology Section or other appropriate official research body.
- WORLDTAMER SECTION: prepares the site of a pilot colony, performs light terraforming if needed, does an in-depth exploration of all the ways the planet in question can kill you.
- FIRST CONTACT SECTION: deals with the possible empire-destroying consequences of first contact with a previously unknown alien civilization.
The empire's Department of Colonization then settles the pilot colony with pioneer-type colonists, and keeps track of their progress. Successful colonies will be opened to Free Colonization. In a liberal Empire, self-supporting colonies can apply for independed elections (instead of being ruled by an imperial planetary governor) and representation on the imperial House of Colonized Worlds or whatever. In a iron-fisted Empire, colonies that want to be free have to start a revolutionary war.
This section is responsible for locating unexplored systems and suppling a list to the First-In Scouts.
The Survey Service astronomical section will use telescopes or whatever to remotely locate all the unexplored solar systems on the frontier. The astronomical section can weed out some star systems unlikely to contain habitable planets. There are certain spectral classes of stars which are unlikely to to live long enough to nurture a habitable planet, others are unlikely to have any planets at all. If the astronomical instruments are powerful enough, they may directly detect biosignatures, indicating the presence of life. The astro section can also spot the danger signs of indigenous intelligent alien species. An intelligent alien site will be forbidden to the Survey and instead will be turned over to the first-contact and military branches of government. Almost as dangerous are the remains of annihilated civilizations, these are revealed by necrosignatures.
This section performs a quick search of an unexplored system for possible colony planets. Also keeping an eye open for anything anomalous, valuable, or cosmically dangerous. Supplies a list to the Exploration Section and special alerts to the Astromilitary.
The scout section will send robot probes or manned expeditions to likely systems for a closer look at any planets that are possible colony sites. Sometimes a starship with a single person (called a "first-in scout") will do the initial once-over, and will tell Galactic Survey which planets are worthy of a full-blown expedition.
The first-in scout can be a robot probe, but this poises a risk. In alien star systems, there is a huge chance of the probe encountering a situation totally outside the bounds of its knowledge set and initiative. In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, there are quite a few colonies founded on really nasty planets because the simple-minded scouting ram-robot space probes were programmed by people with insufficient imagination.
Scouts are also alert for anything valuable, anomalous, or cosmically dangerous.
Valuable things are probably rich mining sites or other resource sites. These are reported so they can be auctioned off to mining corporations.
Anomalous things are anything that doesn't fit. These are reported to the Survey high command to figure out an appropriate response.
Cosmically dangerous things are anything hostile, powerful, has star travel, and capable of threatening the survival of the empire. Berserkers, hostile military star fleet, imminent supernova capable of irradiating nearby colony worlds, planet-eating doomsday machine, that sort of thing. These are reported to the Astromilitary.
There are a few science fiction novels which start with a first-in scout in a remote star system stumbling over or waking up Something Awful. Which becomes the main threat for the rest of the novel (or trilogy). Failure of a first-in scout to make a scheduled return or FTL-radio check-in should result in the Galactic Survey making an emergency crash-priority warning to the astromilitary (RED ALERT! The scoutship Daniel Boone has awakened Cthulhu). Obviously the first-in scouts are sternly warned of the draconian penalties if they miss an FTL-radio check-in because they were goofing off.
First-in scouts will have some training in alien contact in case they are surprised. But in that case the primary orders are to run away and follow the protocols. The astronomical section does its best to locate planets with aliens, but it is not possible to be 100% certain.
Scouts may find Forerunners ruins or artifacts, remains of a long extinct alien interstellar empire. There also might be Forerunner xenopaleotechnology, high-tech artifacts of a higher tech level than yours. Such artifacts are both incredibly valuable and incredibly dangerous.
They are dangerous because messing around with alien technology you do not understand can kill you hideously. They are also dangerous because pirates and rogue interstellar Indiana Jones types love to steal valuable things, so they are motivated to kill you on the general principle of Dead Men Tell No Tales.
There is the slight risk that the Forerunner race is not long dead but actually only mostly dead. If a Forerunner survivor becomes angry at you desecrating their tombs they will obliterate you with their higher-tech weapons. Even if they are long dead; their installations' automatic defenses, guard robots, and booby traps might still work.
The astronomical section tries to locate alien inhabited systems from a distance, and warns off scouts. But surprises will happen. Sometimes the aliens try to live stealthily (which leads to the disturbing question of What Are They Hiding From?). The system might contain a visiting alien ship, with too small a signature to be detected over interstellar distances. Many things can happen.
Scouting becomes really tricky if they stumble over unexpected intelligent aliens. If the aliens have starships, it is vitally important that they do not discover the location of any human planets. Priority Two is sending a red alert message to the First Contact Section.
But chances are any aliens discovered will be either apes or angels. If it is the former the scout can play god over the primitive cave-man aliens. If it is the latter the scout will be placed in an alien petri dish and studied in an alien lab. It is highly unlikely that the alien's technological development will be equal with the humans, no matter what you saw in Star Trek.
The traditional way that scouts look for intelligent aliens is to check the radio waves for alien transmissions, and to check the neutrino detectors for evidence of alien fission or fusion power plants. This allows the scout to spot aliens at a range far enough to beat a hasty retreat. Usually.
And if the scouts detect gamma rays with a precise energy of 511 keV, it means they've discovered an alien civilization powered by antimatter, and should immediately run for their lives as stealthfully as possible.
This section performs an in-depth survey of possible colony planets. And investigates anomalous or valuable sites. Supplies a list of certified planets to the Worldtamer Section. Rich mining sites are auctioned off to commercial mining corporations. Actual anomalies are reported to the Paleotechnology Section or other appropriate official research body.
Scouting a new planet is a notoriously dangerous job. The scouts will have to discover the hard way what a new planet has to offer in the way of deadly plagues, hideous carnivorous animals, poisonous plants, geological death-traps, and killer weather. Not to mention alien inhabitants. Heck, just landing on an unsurveyed landing site with no landing beacon is dangerous.
A critical study of a potential colony planet is the planetary ecology. The Legacy of Heorot is a horror story about how ignorance of local ecology can annihilate a colony. There are quite a few appalling examples from history: the Four Pests Campaign, Africanized bees, and the infamous Rabbits in Australia.
Alan E. Nourse mentioned that on a survey ship, "ecologist" also means general biologist and jack-of-all-biological-trades. "Ecology" covers a multitude of sins on a survey ship.
An example of worldtamers in science fiction is Edmund Cooper's Expendables series. Be warned that the writing in the novels is racist, sexist, misogynistic and triggering (I'm not kidding about "triggering"). The eponymous Expendables are a Dirty Dozen style group of criminals and misfits each of which have a very particular set of skills. Terra's population is undergoing an explosion and they desperately need shirt-sleeve colony planets as a safety valve (I guess the world leaders didn't get the memo). The Expendables have to "prove" newly discovered habitable planets: either finding and dealing with deadly planetary creatures and ecologies, or declaring the planet unfit for colonization.
First contact with a previously unknown alien civilization is a situation fraught with everything from a new renaissance for your galactic empire, to the utter destruction of your galactic empire. It is a very tricky problem.
Since the survival of the Empire is at stake, the First Contact section is about as far up in the imperial government hierarchy as you can get.
With luck, the alien civilization is discovered by the Astronomical Section. With even more luck, the aliens have no idea your empire exists. This gives some breathing room for the First Contact section to decide how to deal with the aliens. This probably boils down to:
- Try to prevent the aliens from discovering your existance
- Cautious attempts at first contact (with some imperial battle fleets held in reserve)
But if one of your first-in scouts is surprised by aliens, the fecal material has hit the fan, and the First Contact section goes into panic mode.
Scoutships will be equipped with huge remote sensing sensor suites to scan the entire planet in detail from orbit. And map it if the planet looks promising. It will also have a large supply of survey satellites, aerial or rocket propelled drones, sample return probes, soft-landing probes, and planetary rovers.
Any return samples will have the probes decontanimated within an inch of their lives, and be studied in remote controled isolation labs. Said labs can be jettisoned and destroyed with integral nuclear physics package the instant any sample shows signs of breaching the isolation.
The ship will also have lots of laboratories to analyze and extrapolate from all the data returned.
The scoutship should be armed more heavily than is normal for a ship its size because you never know when an explorer past the edge of known space might be surprised by trigger-happy xenophobic aliens.
And of course a self-destruct mechanism in case they run into something civilization-threatening that the scouts can't handle. There may or may not be a heavily-stealthed emergency data buoy ejected before self-destruct, containing all data records about the threat. Depends upon whether the astromilitary thinks such a buoy will do more harm than good. Lots of factors to consider: chance of buoy being infected by disease/computer virus/nanotechnology/other, chance of buoy being intercepted by threat and providing damaging data to the enemy, that sort of thing.
Now if the science-fiction author is postulating a reasonable level of technology (FTL or no), the scoutship will be a largish vessel that stays in orbit, and landing vehicles will be used to deliver larger probes and/or human explorers to the planet's surface. Or matter transmitters if you are the Starship Enterprise.
On the other hand, if the author is willing to postulate absolutely outrageous amounts of energy and technology available, they can land the entire freaking scoutship. In which case all the equipment detailed in the Lander section below will instead be inside the starship.
Choosing a landing site for a crewed vessel, though, is mostly up to the crew, not the ship's equipment suite. It's their neck. If they make it down without the ship toppling over then they can plant a landing beacon. The beacon will allow a pilot who is not a hot-shot highly-trained first-in scout to land their ship without dying.
If the lander does topple over, it will need ship-raising equipment to set the lander upright.
Landers need extensive sickbays or auto docs, to try and sew the scout back together after some planetary hazard has mutilated them. It would make sense to initially send out robots so the various planetary death-traps are discovered by something expendable. There will be decontamination chambers in the airlocks to prevent alien plagues from entering the lander. And quarantine rooms in case the plagues get in anyway.
The lander hull should be armored like fortress walls in case something or somethings try to claw or shoot their way in. And like the mothership, it should also have an emergency self-destruct. In case that is the only way to protect the home empire from whatever horror the landed scouts uncover.
Now comes the question about exactly how the lander sets down and lifts off. More to the point: how can it carry enough energy? Remember that for lift-off at least it need approximately the same amount of energy needed to go halfway to anywhere.
Civilized planets have infrastructure to handle this: things like space elevators, laser launchers, Lofstrom Loops, and Space Fountains. But this is a wilderness planet the scouts are exploring, ain't got no infrastruture here (or if there is, it is probably hostile aliens and you are in a whole lotta trouble).
A lander capable of landing and lift-off will probably have a draconian tiny payload allowance. Unless is uses antimatter or something for fuel, which will make the planet ring like a bell and leave an impressive crater if the lander crashes.
Matterbeam has a more reasonable solution. Use a laser launcher but turn it upside down. Instead of having the laser and the power plant on the ground, have it in orbit. More precisely in the mothership. Use Beamed Energy Propulsion, in other words.
This will require that the mothership has lots of electrical power available, and a powerful laser. But it will allow the lander to land and lift off with impressively huge payloads. And they will be even huger if the lander can scrounge some in-situ resource utilization reaction mass from the planet's atmosphere, landscape, or seascape.
Naturally the mothership can only energize the lander when the mother's orbit has the lander in line of sight, but under normal circumstances that should be no problem. Under emergency circumstances it will be a dramatic plot complication for the science-fiction author to add to their novel.
The original Star Trek sort of straddles the fuzzy boarder between "civilian" and "military." In the unofficial Star Trek Technical Manual they talk about taking 12 Star Fleet heavy cruiser starships that are being hangar queens and sending them out to do deep space exploration. With the understanding that they will be instantly available for military missions if Star Fleet needs them.
Such a half-military survey service has precedent in early science fiction:
Ironically A. E. van Vogt coined the expression "fix-up" in the first place.
While it is not deathless prose, science fiction authors may want to force themselves to finish reading it anyway to discover the origins of many now-standard tropes. Amusingly enough the monster from the first story inspired the "displacer beast" in Dungeons & Dragons. Unamusingly the monster from the third story was so close to the one in the movie Alien that Vogt sued 20th Century Fox for plagiarism. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.