Sensors are a starship’s ‘eyes’. They allow it to detect not only phenomena visible to humanoid sight, but an enormous number of electromagnetic and physical phenomena which humanoid senses cannot perceive. Every starship has some types of sensors (Explorers, Scouts, and Research laboratory tend to have more and better sensors, for obvious reasons, though more combat oriented ships tend to have advanced sensor suits as well for equally obvious reasons), divided into four types: long-range; lateral (or short-range); navigation; and specialized.
Sensors are rated for three characteristics: the range over which they work accurately; their ‘gain’ or strength and efficiency relative to their power input; and their component strength, or ability to overcome interference.
Caveat: Standard Starfleet sensor technology, as extremely sensitive as it is, does not detect some 15,000 substances. The regular sensor settings do not include certain unusual, rare, and/or exotic materials. It excludes these from standard analysis routines because they occur so infrequently that it’s inefficient to search for them all the time. Crewmembers can recalibrate sensors to detect many of these substances, but this usually requires them to ‘blind’ the sensors to something they normally register. Detecting the other types of exotic particles require special sensor equipment and/or analysis programming.
Advances in sensor technology over the decade have paved the way for new more powerful and compressed sensor technologies to be used by Starfleet vessels. Colloquially dubbed Trans-spatial sensors, these innovations employ trans-spectral/phasic, Borg Astro-dynamic meta-phasic subspace flux variance, temporal-spectrum analysis, as well as combine the normally equipment costly sensor advancements of the past into one cohesive and compact system easily applied to nearly any Starfleet design. This revolution in sensor technology came about through ASDB research, Anipax technology and Borg equipment assessments; trans-spatial sensors allow for those who use it to scan that various realms of subspace and inter-spatial/trans-dimensional phenomena. Additionally, the sensors are able to pass through nearly any form of high-condensed matter and unusual gaseous nebulas.
(Trans-spatial sensors cost +10 SU’s to the sensor array equipped with them, and cost no penalties on additional routine sensor scans for additional substances and/or phenomena by long-range and lateral sensors. +5000 additional substances are automatically a part of the upgrade. The SU cost counts for upgrades to both Long-range and Lateral sensor systems. As of 2380, Starfleet can now use Class 10 Sensor systems, following the SU and power cost progression described in game terms in Spacedock.)
Active and Passive Sensing
An important distinction between different types of scans involves active versus passive sensor use. Active scans require the ship project some form of energy, then read what happens to that energy (how it reflects back to the ship or dissipates) to locate and track objects and phenomena. Active scanning gives a ship a control over what it’s detecting (or trying to), but reveals the ship’s position to other ships. Passive scans, on the other hand, involve receiving and analyzing forms of energy or other phenomena which come to the ship on their own—the energy projected by a star, for example. Ships have less control over what a passive scan can detect (if the target of the scan is not emitting any radiation, the ship can’t perceive it), but don’t run the risk of detection just for sitting there with the “eyes and ears” open. Passive sensors are required for vessels utilizing a cloaking system; otherwise, the cloak would be rather useless for obvious reasons.
Standard active sensors scan pulses travel at warp 9.9997 (Transwarp 0.195). At this speed it takes about 45 minutes to perform a long-range scan at 17 light-years. Trans-spatial sensors move at 9.9999+ radius (Transwarp 0.92 to be exact) to provide a much greater radius for the ships scanning ability, and to use these sensor particularly at Transphasic Warp speeds used by many advanced designs in the fleet by emitting condensed scan pulses of quantum-phase soliton particles much as a normal sensor would, approaching near transwarp speeds and is –crucial- for ships traveling at FTW velocities.
The long-range sensors, located behind the deflector dish, include narrow- and wide-angle active electromagnetic, meta-phasic and trans-spatial scanners, a parametric subspace field stress sensor, a gravimetric distortion scanner, an electromagnetic and meta-phasic dimensional flux sensor, a life-form analysis instrument cluster, a passive hyper-neutrino imaging scanner, a thermal imaging array, and a tetryon-flux gamma-ray telescope. Long-range sensors once projected now have the capacity of emitting their scans in a 720-degree arc bubble in an omni-directional fashion around the vessel using them.
Lateral sensors, so called because their sensor pallets are usually located along the edges or sides of various parts of the ship, are the short-range systems, which can detect a wide range of phenomena from any direction around the ship. The individual sensor pallets are located all over the ship’s hull to maximize signal gain and system flexibility, and to provide redundancy in case some pallets fail or are damaged. On most starships standard Starfleet sensor packages occupy the majority of the ships lateral sensor pallets, but the remainder are open for mission-specific sensor packages. The standard Starfleet science sensor array consists of six pallets, each containing one to six specific sensory devices (and in the case of vessels equipped with trans-spatial sensor grids, much more).
Lateral sensors are both active and passive. Among their many uses, they are employed extensively in combat situations to monitor enemy movement and activities. Their maximum active range is approximately one light-year; their gain depends on the gain package and/or upgrades taken.
Navigational sensors, which help a flight control officer steer the ship in the proper direction and avoid space debris, include a quasar telescope, passive subspace multi-beacon receivers, stellar graviton detectors, a Federation Time base beacon receiver, and various IR and UV imagers and trackers. The ships guidance and navigation (G&N) relay handles the flow of sensor data and converts it into useable information with three- and four-dimensional flight motion software, which feeds directly into the flight control systems.
Sometimes ships need to extend the range and/or sensitivity of their sensors. They do this with probes, automated sensor platforms launched from missile launchers; they use micro-fusion propulsion systems and/or warp field sustainers to travel beyond the ship itself. All probes can withstand atmospheric entry; some are even capable of gently descending through an atmosphere to the surface of a planet to run scans. Most allow for some degree of remote operation, so that the ship’s crewmembers (typically the Flight Control Officer or Tactical Officer) can direct the probe where they want it to go. Probes, which are typically two meters long, are encased in a photon torpedo lasing or a gamma-welded Duranium-tritanium and pressure bonded lufium boronate hull. Some recent probe types even use Tetraburnium alloys to make their hulls that much stronger.
The Federation uses 12 classes of probes. The designations indicate particular mission types the probe is suited for, or its capabilities; a higher numerical classification does not indicate that a probe is “better” than other probes. However, a higher-designation probe usually flies more quickly and has a greater range, such as the new class 10 multi-spatial probes and class 11 and 12 trans-spatial probes, or even the Avatar-class ‘Exo-drone’ which is the size of a class 3 shuttlecraft, and operates at extremely long ranges with a wide variety of capabilities and even defensive capabilities unlike probes. Other species use similar probes, and are often referred to as ‘drones’.