By the early 29th century, space travel is as common as air travel on Earth in the 20th, for similar prices. Anyone not in complete poverty can afford at least an orbital hop across the planet or to an orbital station, and interstellar travel is the vacation of the upper-middle class. Living a lifetime without setting foot on a planet is more common than never having left one. Tramp freighters and freelancers are a frequent sight in more populated systems as well.
While most of the major galactic species were at different levels of technology at first contact, major technologies have been traded and shared to the point that they have become universal across the dozens of different species that interact on the galactic stage. While the exact implementations and designs may vary wildly, familiar principles are behind them all.
To achieve the sheer power required for FTL and the long burns to reach an FTL point, most species eventually settle on the clean power of fusion drives and the perfect efficiency of antimatter. Fusion is generally an old tech for interstellar civilizations, accompanied by engine designs that allow for extreme fuel efficiency. While even more efficient, the dangers of antimatter mean its use is generally restricted and carefully licensed, and its difficult creation means refueling requires dedicated depots versus the in-field scooping of hydrogen fuels from a gas planet for fusion.
The development of gravity manipulation by the Rokhandan Directorate and its subsequent sharing with other races caused radical changes in ship design, allowing for easier and comfortable survival in space without the constant acceleration of an engine. Rarely will one find the gravity of their home planet on a ship, usually tuned to the minimum safe level for their species to save power.
While the majority of space colonies are immense cylinders that rely on spin for gravity, artificial gravity allows minor orbital stations to be built quick and relatively cheap, and even frontier systems may have dozens as trading outposts or supporting mining and exploration.
Careful creation of gravity fields in the opposite direction of acceleration also works as an inertial dampener, negating a portion of the g-forces of harsh maneuvers. While not usually a problem for your average freighter or passenger liner, warships are capable of violent maneuvers that would kill the crew inside without them. The technology by nature is imperfect, and trauma by a delayed or struggling dampening field is a common cause of death in space combat. Most naval sailors are augmented or highly-trained to withstand the extreme vertigo caused by the rapidly shifting fields.
With the directional, limited nature of artificial gravity, it is more likely to strain a ship's hull than reinforce it. The strength of a ship's frame is still the major limiting factor in acceleration and maneuvering.
With the immense power that starships can provide, hardlight is usable to its full potential. Powerful generators create intersecting lines of force that trap photons to create an impenetrable wall. The power required is heavy, so shielding in combat is multi-level. A translucent glow of red light around a ship is a near-universal sign of caution, signifying a shield at a level sufficient to absorb lasers and scatter particle beams. Shields only build to full strength to deflect missiles and other projectiles, rising to a blinding violet. Even with this careful management, most shields can only be maintained for minutes before power loss or heat accumulation forces them to drop.
In deep space there is generally insufficient light to create a shield fast enough to respond to attacks, so most ships employ powerful strobes solely to fill their hardlight shields with photons.
Ironically, for the average vessel it takes as much time to travel across a system as it does to reach the next one over. Fuel, mass, and engine power all affect the acceleration of a ship, leading to a wide range of travel times. While a manned warship with its highly-trained crew, antimatter drive and powerful inertial negators may travel across the Sol system in 3-4 days, the average freighter could take well over a week.
The majority of travel time over interstellar distances is reaching a safe distance for FTL travel, and returning from the landing point. While FTL travel time itself is dependent on vessel mass and the strength of its jump engines, expect to take a week to cross an entire ten lightyears and another week to cross that last four billion miles.
|FTL travel uses W-1 as fuel to cause a dramatic warping of space that flings the ship towards its destination. Your ship jumps itself but needs a station to catch it or it is likely to hit the sun. Can go about 10 lightyears and take about a week, but is instant from ship's POV.|
Universally recognized as the greatest scientific achievement of the last millennium, the Rokhandans developed FTL travel in the 21st century, with Humanity following in the 24th. Considered a fundamental leap in the understanding of physics, it opened the galaxy for exploration and first contact between the major species was not far behind.
The discovery of one variant of dark matter dubbed W-1 was the final piece required. While there is still heavy debate in scientific communities of its early-universe origins, it was a long-theorized element key for superluminal travel, used as the fuel catalyst for driving the FTL process.
The FTL process is overwhelmingly sensitive to gravitational pull, so ships in planetary systems must first get sufficiently far from its star or other significant objects. In planet-heavy systems leaving the plane of the system by going upwards is considered the simplest way, but with a tremendous cost of fuel and complications from its angle of travel. Unconventionally, ships do not travel towards their destination, but in whichever direction will let them match the speed of the destination star system as closely as possible while still giving them a clear line of sight.
Once the ship is in a gravitationally quiet orbit with a clear line to its target star it can begin the jump process. While older vessels can take hours to process the intense calculations and align the ship, modern warships with dedicated datacenters can be ready for FTL in minutes. The W-1 catalyst is used to fuel a tachyonic conversion, and the ship and the spacetime containing it transitions into a separate frame of reference from the rest of the universe, accelerated towards its destination. To any outside observer, the ship no longer exists. While unobservable to our universe, the abstract ship is still affected by it, and any gravity wells along its path can cause a dangerous bend.
If the FTL calculations are correct and the path is free of any disturbances, then the ship's transitional state will collapse precisely upon reaching a safe distance from the target, and the ship will re-enter our universe's reference frame.
While theoretically possible, modern computing substrates and station-keeping technology is incapable of the precision and sensitivity to make a safe jump, and a ship jumping unassisted towards a star is likely to vastly overshoot or be fatally caught within a gravity well. Even with assistance, jumps with 29th-century technology are limited to around 10 lightyears before rounding errors means transitioning directly into the sun or failing to re-enter the correct frame entirely becomes a substantial risk.
Every civilized star system has one or several jump wells in distant orbits, placed there during initial exploration. Powerful stations that each affect a relatively vast swathe of space- minuscule over interstellar distances- altering the fundamental fabric of spacetime to force ships passing through the envelope to safely transition within it. This assisted arrival puts the ship into the well's reference frame, requiring the station to shed the ship's extra velocity. While immediately noticeable to the crew as intense heat, repeated transitions can cause severe stress to a ship's structure. While a ship's crew suffering fatal thermal injuries from improperly matching their speed before jumping is a rare occurrence, a poorly-maintained ship tearing itself into glitter is unfortunately far more common.
To a ship's crew, a successful FTL jump is the press of a button and a sudden wave of heat. To the ship, zero time has passed. To the outside universe, a week or more might have gone by. The time taken for the ship to jump is loosely correlated to its mass and the strength of its FTL drive. The lighter the ship and the stronger the engine, the less time. Expect your average freighter to take over a week to make a 10-lightyear jump, with an advanced warship coming in at 4-7.
With interstellar travel requiring no more life support than a trip around a star system, it is common for steerage passengers to be placed into suspended animation for the trip, allowing even the poor to take usually one-way trips to new homes.
Teleportation? Like turning a ship into information and just beaming the whole thing like some kind of old holo program? That's ridiculous. And impossible. We simply tricked the universe into believing it was there the whole time. Make an evil clone? Are you making fun of our work?
— Katherina Licinus, Barrowan Professor of Physics-University of Marineris
I've heard it cost the Republic over four hundred billion denaris, the drive and receiver were each the size of a town dome, and we could only send a kilogram of pure copper a dozen AUs past the Oort Cloud. But by the gods, seeing that brick move from one screen to the other like that, with nothing between? I knew we'd all just won a Nobel and Hawking prize each. I was wrong. We each got three.
— L. Cepheus Abercius, Director of Mawrth Vallis Lab-Hermes Project Head
Despite the galaxy itself being potentially crossable in a year exploration is still done the old-fashioned way, considered the safest and most economical. Dubbed almost-faster-than-light, the trailblazing of new systems is done by lighthuggers, automated ships ramped up to within a few percent of the speed of light, coasting through system after system and leaving FTL points behind them.
Exploration ships do not decelerate, but coast through systems on a carefully-chosen route. Most contain a small jumpwell on their back, with automated ships using the assistance of immense supporting computing vessels to calculate the precise target window to arrive at the correct point, where a larger jumpwell can then be constructed. Coordinating the meeting of two objects over interstellar distances and the ensuing construction and exploration is each a project on-par with the early days of any civilization's space program.
This process- from the launch of a new lighthugger to the first manned explorator setting eyes on a new star- could take a decade or more. After, the exploration of uninhabited systems is frequently contracted out to private companies. The opening of a new star with multiple rocky planets invites dozens of independent ships with only a nominal military escort. The risk and reward can be great- with rescue or protection frequently days away, the risk of death is higher than prospecting companies advertise.
With years between systems, interesting stars can be skipped altogether for more intriguing destinations beyond, leaving dark spots on star maps that might not be filled for decades longer. It is not unheard of to discover sentient species in the midst of already well-established territory as low-priority missions are finally launched. As it is, civilized space is criss-crossed by exploration ships maneuvering towards untouched regions numbering in the low double-digits.