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Interstellar Trade by Starbrat (printer friendly) discuss (18 posts)

Ever since the release of Traveller in 1977, interstellar trade has been a part of Science Fiction roleplaying. Based on models of modern international trade, it has featured such cargoes as tractor parts, livestock, foodstuffs, weapon components, computers and the like. This original model has remained essentially unchanged ever since, and has even gone on to inspire computer games such as Elite (and its descendant, Frontier).

However, how does the transport of materials across a planet's surface relate to hauling goods across the light years? Nowhere in the world today is more than a day or so from anywhere else, at least for light cargoes that can be transported by air. If spaceplanes were available, such cargoes could be delivered in a couple of hours (you could send a package from Australasia to the Americas for those occasions when it really did have to be there yesterday!) Markets separated by light-years, however, are at least a few weeks apart, years or decades if FTL travel is unavailable. This difference, together with the nature of interplanetary settlement, makes me feel that this model is inaccurate.

Settlement & Dependency

It was originally believed that when Humanity finally begins to make its home on other worlds, they would need to take all of their necessaries with them. Nowadays, a more self-sufficient approach is considered more logical. Instead, the settlers will have only a minimum of manufactured equipment, together with the means to make everything they need from local resources (which is a far superior approach, much better suited to the long-term viability of the colony). This self-sufficiency, which is necessary at the beginning, would in all likelihood become a major factor in the personality of a space colony. Whether separated by millions of kilometres or parsecs, the situation would be the same.

So, these facts being considered, it seems highly unlikely (and irresponsible) to think that an off-world colony would rely on long haul trade for essential hardware and foodstuffs. If war or other disaster were to befall the trade network, the colony would be doomed.


Nowadays, scientists are confident that nanotechnology will play a major role in the manufacturing and general industrial landscape of the future. In fact, certain forms of nanotech are already in existence (tailored viruses for gene therapy, for instance). If large-scale manufacturing could be achieved by these processes, gigantic centralised factories will become part of our industrial past, just like pit ponies and water mills. Even if nanotech never achieves much of its potential, the likelihood of Caterpillar exporting earthmovers to Epsilon Indi seems increasingly unlikely.


Another oft-neglected factor should also be considered. Different planets will have different conditions. Gravity, temperature, atmospheric pressure and composition will all have their effects on vehicles and equipment. While it would certainly be possible to allow for these conditions in the design process, it will be the colonists themselves who truly understand the vagaries of their world. A better solution would be for such equipment to be designed and built on the world it is destined to work on.


Taking these arguments into consideration, you could be forgiven for assuming that I think interstellar trade would be impossible. Not at all. There are plenty of avenues for trading between the stars, and many of them favour the small-scale haulier over bulk carriers; good news for a trading campaign.

But first, the big guys

Before we look at the kinds of cargo that small hauliers can profit from, I'd like to consider what the big carriers would be lugging between the stars. For this, we need a bit of astronomy…

Solar systems are formed from clouds of molecular gas and dust. They begin contracting under their own gravity, and eventually break up into hundreds of spinning discs that will eventually form solar systems. The exact chemical composition of these clouds depends on how they themselves formed.

When the Big Bang first set the Universe into motion, the only elements present were hydrogen and a little helium and lithium. All other elements have been formed in stars, either part of the cycle of fusion reactions that sustains the star through its life, or in the cataclysmic death-agonies of a supernova. The more common elements (helium, carbon, silicon, iron, oxygen, neon, sulphur and the like) are formed in the star's fusing lifetime, while the rarer elements (lead, gold, uranium, niobium, gadolinium, tungsten, silver etc.) are formed in split-second fusion reactions as an ancient super-massive star tears itself apart in a supernova.

This means that all solar systems will have plenty of the common elements, (which is why water, rock, iron, aluminium and various organics are common throughout the Universe), proportions of rarer elements depend on the nature of the star whose remains have enriched the interstellar medium. As a result, there may very well be worlds whose inhabitants make jewellery out of niobium and vanadium, and where gold is a laboratory curiosity. This difference in the availability of rarer elements (particularly those essential for a healthy diet, such as potassium and selenium) will be a driving force in interstellar trade.

Unless a system has only a few small, scattered colonies, the element-trade will likely be accomplished by the interstellar version of supertankers, carrying mass loads of essential chemicals. Smaller hauliers would serve more scattered systems and smaller colonies.

Smaller loads

Smaller carriers will still have plenty to do, however. In fact, most of the variety in interstellar trade will likely be the province of the small merchant fleet and independent haulier. As well as bulk loads of elements, high-value cargoes will also be carried. What will these loads likely be? Let's see…

Rare (or patented) high-value chemical loads will be an add-on to the bulk trade, although most necessary chemicals will be synthesised on the colonies themselves. However, new medicines, patented custom-compounds and nanotech loads of various kinds will need to be transported between systems. Also, special manufactured goods, such as weapons and state-of-the-art high tech will form a major part of interstellar trade goods. Live cargo such as passengers, embryos and seeds for colonisation purposes as well as favoured pets will also be very important. Easily transported goods such as rare (and/or difficult to grow) spices and jewellery from civilisation-wide famous jewellers will also be carried.

What we aren't likely to see are bulk biologicals such as grain, meat, fruit & veg and adult livestock. Machined parts for simple equipment and vehicles (nobody's going to carry ball bearings or nails between the stars) would be simply uneconomical. Mass-produced finished vehicles and other simple loads will also be unsuitable.

Naturally, contraband will also make up a sizeable (if unofficial) part of interstellar trade.

So, that gives us a basic picture of the future of trade. Bulk loads will consist of pure chemical elements that will need to be exported from one system to another, while passengers, mail and more exclusive goods will be the province of the smaller contractors. The picture is at once simpler and more complex than the classic vision, but I feel that it is more logical.

© Mark Peoples 2000.
Traveller is a trademark of Far Future Enterprises, inc.
Elite and Frontier are copyright Konami ltd and Gametek ltd.

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(17) in Well Done! by TerroX on 10-10-2007

(1) in Wow. by nightshade on 26-09-2000


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