In Season 1, Episode 1

Burnham puts on a space suit and flies out to investigate an anomaly that they can't see from the ship's location. During the approach the suit apparently has a built-in navigation system and takes evasive action to avoid a space rock. They know there's a risk of lethal radiation exposure.

My question is, was there an in-universe reason why the ship couldn't have sent out an automated probe to investigate and report back? I think I might have missed the explanation in the dialog with the captain and the science officer.

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    It wouldn't have looked as cool, and would have denied the drama that followed? I can't think of any in-universe reason. – Jeff Sep 26 '17 at 16:53
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    The question assumes that probes on the Shenzhou are equipped with guidance / maneuvering capabilities. If the probes available are merely fire and forget, that would be a rather easy in-universe answer – NKCampbell Sep 26 '17 at 17:59
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    Star Trek has never been much for automated probes. Oh, sure they're there, but things generally come down to living expedition teams. Even on Voyager, "automated probe" usually meant, at best, sending the Doctor (a fully sentient albeit non-biological crew member). – Adamant Sep 26 '17 at 18:02
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    Although they didn't discuss it, I would think the "scattering field" which renders their optics and sensors incapable of seeing the object would have a similar effect on any probe. They'd lose telemetry, just as they lost contact with Burnham when she got close enough. – Tim Sep 27 '17 at 0:26
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    @Tim - why would a probe require a constant connection? Couldn't it do a fly-by and come back? The suit had a camera and navigation capabilities. It seems like a suit without a person in it would have been capable of carrying out the mission by itself, so it's hard to believe they don't have the technology to build a probe to do the same thing. – Scott Whitlock Sep 27 '17 at 15:17

While Star Trek: Discovery is not adhering strictly to 1966-1969 canon (for example, "Turnabout Intruder" establishes that there's either an institutional ban or a glass ceiling preventing women commanding starships!), the first time, in The Original Series, we see, using automated drone probes of any kind is "The Immunity Syndrome", stardate 4307.1, despite several situations where such a probe might have been useful. Even shuttlecraft are rarely used to extend the ship's sensor range (that same episode being a rare counter-example), unless the ship itself is needed elsewhere.

As such, we can safely assume that Shenzhou does not have robot or remote-control probes it can use. Further evidence for this comes from the fact that someone was going to have to manually pilot a worker-bee to deliver a torpedo. If Shenzhou had robot/remote-control probes, then a torpedo warhead could have been mounted in or on such a probe just as easily as it was beamed out to be planted on a corpse.

It's worth noting that this does not mean that Shenzhou has never been equipped with such a probe, or that they don't exist in this time period at all; only that none were available at the time they were needed. These stories pre-date matter replication on the level we see in TNG. It's possible that Shenzhou can carry such probes, but had used them all up and not been re-supplied.

  • In fact, I now have to revise my long-standing opinion of the "The Immunity Syndrome" itself. The whole "space amoeba" thing has always made me kind of shrug the story off for its bad science. It's been so long since I revisited the episode that I didn't give it credit for actually introducing the idea of using automated probes and using shuttles to extend the ship's reach. – Michael Scott Shappe Oct 3 '17 at 23:28
  • Good answer. I'd be interested whether or not ST Enterprise showed automated drone use, but I realize that's a different timeline. – Scott Whitlock Oct 4 '17 at 16:02
  • Actually, Enterprise, Discovery, and Star Trek (1967-1969) are supposed to all be in the same timeline. I'm not sure I quite buy it, but they're supposed to be. – Michael Scott Shappe Oct 4 '17 at 20:13
  • When the Enterprise E went back in First Contact, I believe it forked the timeline, and ST Enterprise exists in that forked timeline, because they found Borg at the south pole from the First Contact events. Also, all the temporal cold war stuff messed with it, didn't it? – Scott Whitlock Oct 4 '17 at 20:21
  • It's actually entirely unclear if they actually forked the timeline, or if it was a predestination paradox! You're right that the temporal cold war allows pretty much any continuity change afterward to kind of be shrugged off, though. Which is why I don't worry much about what timeline things are in any more :-D – Michael Scott Shappe Oct 4 '17 at 21:42

I am going to give a speculative answer since I can think of no evidence with which this can be answered definitively at the moment:

  1. As was mentioned in the comments above, the "scattering field" may have incapacitated the probe, making the sending of one futile.

  2. Since a shuttle (very small human supporting space craft) was considered not maneuverable enough for the asteroid density, perhaps the probes were also lacking in maneuverability as well, essentially rendering them useless in this situation.

  3. Perhaps the U.S.S Shenzhou was either not equipped with remote automated probes, or, since it was established that it's an older ship and that they are on the edge of federation space, it may have not had any probes left on board.

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