How common are habitable planets?

In the BSG universe, it looks like nice planets are rare. As the fleet moves through space, it is regularly sending out scouting missions in Raptors, searching for food, resources and fuel. Depending on fuel available, I presume that means scanning thousands of planets. But what planets do they encounter?

  • They start at their own colonies, which seem quite nice.
  • First, Kobol, which they are guided to, it seems, by the Cylons. Leoben tells them they will find it. It’s no accident. Of course, Kobol is not a new, undiscovered planet.
  • Next, New Caprica. This discovery elicits great excitement both as the first such planet seen, even though it is barely habitable. It is also exciting for being somewhat hidden.
  • Next, the Algae planet with the Temple of Five. This planet may not be strictly habitable. It seems very harsh, but it does have a food source.
  • Finally, Earth, which of course at one point was a perfect planet, being the homeworld of humanity after all. It’s now ruined by nuclear war.

12 Colonies? Not likely.

The colonies are a bit of an issue. Moore says he imported the idea of the colonies — 12 colonies at one star system — from the original series, knowing that this is not actually realistic. How can we retcon it as realistic? The problem is a typical star can only have perhaps 2 planets in a comfortable temperature zone.

  • The easiest explanation would be to say colonies are not planets, but continents. Then they could exist on far fewer planets.
  • Ordinary double star systems are not stable for planets, but a very distant binary could hold planets for long enough. Eventually the other star distorts the orbit of the planets.
  • If you have a superplanet (gas giant) in the habitable zone, you could have 12 moons in orbit around it, all in that zone. Or with two stars and two supergiants in the zone, you could have 3 moons per supergiant, and get 12 moons.

Now this is highly improbable unless you use terraforming. And it might make a lot of sense that the Kobolians, when expelling the 12 colonies, did just that to make a home for them.

The Algae Planet

While we don’t know this is truly habitable (it seems not) they are clearly guided to this planet, to be there at one magic time planned thousands of years in the past. As Baltar says, the odds of them all converging on that planet are astronomical. He tells them all to be aware that it’s not chance. No, they don’t come here by accident. In fact, the fleet goes past this world (scanning it and noting it) but then, by strange coincidence, their food processors are all contaminated. They have no choice but to take a dangerous trip back to get there now, now, now. This can hardly be chance. Somebody pulling the strings — using agents on the fleet — contaminated that food.

New Caprica

It seems they discover New Caprica by chance, and it’s hidden. But do they? It’s discovered by a random jump. And they are way too early for their appointment at the Algae Planet. They powers that be need them to wait 18 months. Remarkably, an excuse appears. Head Six pushes Baltar to run for office and halt the fleet there.

Then, remarkably, a year later the Cylons see the flash of the nuclear bomb that Gina, a Cylon, set off after Baltar gave it to her at Head Six’s encouragement. Is it chance this happens? Or is a Cylon scout directed somewhere 1LY away to see the flash? The string-pullers need the fleet off the planet now, and events all conspire to make it happen.

So no, I don’t think the detour to New Caprica is an accident; in fact it’s a must to time their arrival at the Nova, to have Tyrol open the Temple of Five, and to have the chosen one activate it — oops.

Earth

Their arrival at Earth is totally manipulated by the Final Five. And of course it is not a planet they discover.

So the conclusion? They never find a habitable planet on their own, and in spite of a lot of searching. So in this universe, they are quite rare, which also explains why Kobol and the colonies are so far from Earth.

I should also note that this is spelled out in the original miniseries script:

LAURA Can we really find another planet to colonize?

ADAMA It may take a while. The number of planets that can sustain human life is very small. And there’s always the chance they may already have some kind of indigenous intelligent life on them — although if there are aliens out there, they’ve been awfully quiet.

In that script there was only one planet (which they called Kobol) and all 12 colonies were on it. There was only one star system, and FTL exploration was rare — they had not explored more than 30 LY outside their system.

It wasn't Athena who found

It wasn't Athena who found New Caprica - it was Racetrack and Skulls. You could argue that it was Athena who sent the co-ordinates but I'm pretty sure that they reveal through dialogue that it was manual error which caused them to enter the wrong co-ordinates.

My mistake

It was Racetrack. But this doesn’t alter the basic facts here. We do know that a big event is planned for the Temple of Five some 19 months away, but the fleet is way too close. Whoever is planning that event has to delay the fleet for that long. And once found, Head Six make sure Baltar pushes for colonization.

So something about the way this planet is found is no accident, I would contend. And it still seems that habitable planets are rare, and they get excited about this barely habitable one, though admittedly in part for its seclusion.

And of course if you think about it, random jumps simply don’t end up at star systems and planets. The odds of that are, well, to use an appropriate word, astronomical.

Algae Planet

If you remember that D'Anna said when the cylons and the humans had the meeting on Galatica above the Algae planet, something about "...So you've found the original settlement of the 13th tribe"
Which seems to me that the 13th tribe tried staying there for a while, but fond it to harsh, or one of their scientists (Or Mystics) told them that the sun would explode and like Geata they weren't sure when, so they packed up and left, and went onto earth.

Their legends

Remember, the religious texts of the colonial religion (which the Cylons also have copies of, and more) tell the story of the “Temple of the Five priests of the god whose name must not be spoken.” And presumably they say it was a temple made by the (cover story) 13th tribe. Now the colonials don’t know it’s a cover story, and I guess the Cylons don’t either. Though they never seem to ask, “Just how is it we have written records of the things this 13th tribe did on their trip to Earth, and what they did when they landed, and pictures of cities on Earth, but we don’t have a written record of where they went and have to follow bizarre clues?”

Of course the reason is, the 5 priests and the temple are things recorded in their past, from the journey from Earth to Kobol, where they stopped on that Algae Planet and built the temple and made some plans for its use in 4,000 years.

An Infinity of Infinities

If I recall, Ron imported the twelve colonies as seperate systems and combined them within one system. That doesn't hold up very well in science or story terms but works if you don't look too closely. It could be dismissed as lazy bullshit and it might've been better if he'd kept things as they originally were. He claimed that he'd merged them into one system for dramatic reasons: travel between the systems would've been dramatically boring. It doesn't hold up in retrospect. So, yeah. Stupid decision. Picking away at it takes peoples minds off the narrative focus which is what it's all about, and he executed that well enough.

The BSG expanded universe is pretty small and doesn't work as well as the Star Wars universe. I can't make up my mind if that's because it's a cheap knock-off or just badly conceived. Maybe, it's not important and doesn't matter. It's great for what it is and you could argue the expanded Star Wars universe has got a bit flabby. One thing we can forget is the wheel turns. What's big today is forgotten tomorrow. Empires arise and empires decline, and something new,better, or different will come along to take it's place. That's very Buddhist, and it's notable that Ron is a Buddhist himself.

So, we've got a people with FTL travel and no certain past. That's a bit freaky in itself, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suppose that planets aren't so rare that an FTL capable society couldn't hold together, or that they're incapable of terraforming. A lot of that background has been cut or bullshitted into place to keep the focus on the journey. The mistakes could be retconned out and things could be expanded if the will was there. I doubt there will be a new BSG era but Caprica and the storytelling potential that's lying in there may well spawn new series in the years and decades to come.

(Brad, I noticed your platform is generating error messages at the top of the page when a post is submitted. Don't know if you know about that but I thought it worth mentioning.)

Legacy

Yes, I accept it as a legacy import.

Here’s the problem: He, correctly, did not give the colonials FTL communication. (He seems to have given it to the Cylons.) Without FTL, if they were in 12 Star Systems, there would be no way to carry out a number of plot elements, like seeing that all the colonies are attacked, or Roslin getting the signal that all cabinet members are dead, or putting out the signal for all ships that can to join the rag-tag fleet.

So the answer is to have all the planets be in one system. As I said, you could have this if you had a jovian or two with lots of moons, and you terraformed them. That’s how I would have written it to be consistent SF. It would not spoil anything to give the Kobolians that terraforming power.

One step backwards, two steps forwards

I can accept that rationalisation. I'm not sure if it's possible but I'm a bit doubtful if the merely lightspeed communications holds up either. The delay between the attack and Galactica waking up are a bit long, but that might just be me misremembering things and nit-picking.

More to your point, I'm generally okay with the idea the story could work even with seperate systems and non-FTL comms. But, this would change the story and some tech elements. If they were in that position I'd say you'd have something like FTL capable transmission pods that would hop between systems. It's expensive but doable.

Assuming this scenario was picked instead, the single massive strike at all points by the Cylons would be just as valid, suprising, and accentuate the importance of compromising the defence systems. There might be some handwaving involved but I can't see how it's any more flawed than the solution Ron picked.

But, I accept it would've changed the story in some ways and the idea that the Kobolians may have had terraforming capability. Heck, if the episode where they find the star map is to be believed the Kobolians had some sort of funky wormhole tech as well though I think Ron might have gone back on that in a comment I vaguely heard about that said it was just a hologram.

Just reflecting, again. As much as I think merging the colonies into one system was a big mistakes, dumping the lizard race and putting their travel to Earth in the future (as far as we can guess) was worth doing. The colony mistake is nothing, really, but the lizards were too cheesy, and the genesis issues were just wrong. Yeah, I've got a moan but the package is a big improvement.

All this is interesting, but

All this is interesting, but I recall a comment from Ron Moore that he never wanted to show the "engine room" of a Battlestar, because he wanted to avoid the constraints this places on the story. I think this comes from his Star Trek days, where an enormous amount of time and plot are devoted to explaining sci fi stuff that, in most cases, doesn't actually really exist or matter that much. Moore wanted to focus on the story, and I commend him and the show for that.

The only departures I can recall from this are when Athena plugs herself into the ship to deactivate the incoming Cylon raiders and when they use Hera's blood to "cure" Roslyn's cancer. And, of course, the existence of 12 habitable planets in the same star system.

I can let all these slide, although I find that I'm most bothered by the first two... I don't like that cylons can "talk" to computers ala Seven of Nine. They're more interesting (and possibly more true to the overall story) when they are essentially identical to humans, except for their ability to download.

And Hera's blood gets me because, well, since Roslyn has cancer again, why haven't they tried another transfusion? And why don't they give it to everyone on the ship? Of course, the answer is because it would make no sense, be cruel, and ruin the plot.

The 12 colonies matters little, since virtually all of the show takes place elsewhere. And what little from the plot you might be able to gleen from their technical impossibility probably won't be what dictates the plot in the minds of the writers. This was their call. They made it, and they moved on.

But hey -- it's still the best show on television for me. I'll be sad to see it go.

1) Star Wars vs Galactica -

1) Star Wars vs Galactica - Of course the SW universe is more interesting. You have hundreds of worlds and alien species and magic. Galactica has humans, most of whom were killed, and one race of killer robots. There simply isn't the same amount of breathing room to tell as many stories. However, this ONE story is as compelling as any you could craft in the SWU.

2) I'm not sure what the big deal is with the planets. We have strong evidence that the Colonials came from a more advanced species at some point, so I have no problem with them terraforming worlds prior to colonization (and if the prophecies are true, the terraforming could have been done centuries prior in anticipation of the next cycle), and we've not really spent much time at all dealing with the colonies themselves. They could be moons, or planets or, more likely, a mix of both. We'll probably get a better idea on Caprica, but for Galactica, who cares?

12 colonies, one system

It's fairly clear and the miniseries and made explicit later by Moore that the 12 colonies are all in the same solar system.

It is highly unlikely: even if the kobollian exiles arrived with terraforming technology, it's only been 2000 years. And if they had that technology when they left Kobol, why isn't the Kobol system full of terraformed planets? Also problematic is the question of FTL technology: why do they even have jump technology on civilian ships (such as Colonial 1) if there was no reason for interstellar travel?

On the other hand, some things can be just taken as a given for dramatic purposes, and as a legacy from the original. Imagine the howls from disaffected TOS fans if Moore had put all 12 colonies on a single planet!

12 on one planet

That was the original script. He doesn’t care about the howls. I think the reason to change it is what you say, a fleet of interstellar civilian ships makes no sense. He admitted the 12 planets thing was also not very scientific, but did it to match the old series as much as he reasonably could.

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