The Terraforming Seed Ship Titan, from the movie Titan A.E. Image (c) Twentieth Century Fox.

Colonizing Seed Ship
Tech Level: 15
Terraforming Seed Ship
Tech Level: 18

Seed ships are an intriguing idea for colonizing interstellar space that depends heavily on extremely advanced and reliable artificial intelligence and robotics. It occasionally pops up in various science fiction sources. The novel The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, the animated movie Titan A.E., and the "Scorched Earth" episode of the TV series Stargate: SG-1, all used seed ships as major plot points.

Seed ships are a "Low C" option of colonizing interstellar space. "Low C" options assume achieving significant fractions of lightspeed are impossible or highly impractical, and interstellar explorers must resign themselves to voyages of centuries or millennia.

Tech Level: 15

No known technique can yet freeze a human being and bring him back to life. However, it is now a decades-old tried and true technology to freeze human zygotes (fertilized ova) for long periods of time, then thaw them and bring them to full term. Since it assumed no human could survive the centuries-long trips between the stars, seed ships are fully automated. When they reach their destination after many deacdes in transit, the ship lands, and the vessel’s mainframe oversees the thawing and bringing to term human zygotes via artificial wombs. When the ship-born children come to term, robots take over rearing them, educating and training them to become the seed population of a new human colony.

Usually this "first round" of humans, from a handful to several dozen in number, is then used to awaken and raise several hundred more humans from the ship’s biological stores. These then form the first human community on planet, which then expands in the usual manner in succeeding generations.

Actually, the most difficult part of creating a seed ship mission wouldn’t be the stardrive or plotting an interstellar trajectory or anything so mundane, but in creating artificial intelligences and robots that could handle and raise human children without causing any undue psychological or physiological damage to their charges. The mission designers would no doubt try to make the parental units and computers as human-like as possible, with true androids being used by advanced enough societies.

An alternative to child-rearing robots would be to keep the children in a total virtual reality environment from birth to maturity, as per the movie The Matrix, with tissue growth, bone density, and muscle tone maintained through electrodynamic stimulation or nanotech restructuring. Within the VR environment, they experience a perfectly normal childhood, then are given "transitional" scenarios that allows them to psychologically ease into their waking lives on an alien planet.

If technology such as memory printing is available, it could also be possible to clone and quick-grow individuals as a seed population, then imprint them with the memories and skills of specialists recorded back on the homeworld.

Besides human zygotes, the ship could also carry frozen genetic material of livestock, crops, and other useful lifeforms.

Tech Level: 18

Both Titan A.E. and the "Scorched Earth" episode of Stargate: SG-1 used this type of seed ship.

The Colonizing Seed Ship assumes that the ship will be sent to a previously known planet where the conditions to support its colonists already exist. However, the Terraforming Seed Ship is created with the ability to transform a planet (or, in Titan A.E.’s case, a loose planet-sized mass of ice asteroids) to fit the requirements of its colonists. By necessity, it needs to be much bigger, much more powerful, and much more advanced that its Colonizing cousin.

Besides the zygotes of the colonists, the seed ship would also need to carry the genetic material of all the plants, animals, and microorganisms that will form the ecology of the terraformed planet. It would also have to be smart enough to set up that delicately-balanced ecology while avoiding the many pitfalls that can plague such an undertaking.

Terraforming an entire planet can prove be a long, arduous, and resource-consuming process, one that could take many centuries or millennia. A terraforming seed ship, therefore, would have to be built as tough and as long-enduring as the most rugged generation ship, as it may be a very, very long time running on automatic, between its centuries-long journey and centuries or more terraforming a planet or planet-sized mass.

Once a habitable environment is established, the ship gestates its human crew and raises them as per a colonizing seed ship, above.

Related Information

In Print:

The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

Article added 2005