The game doesn?t really explain all the planetary stuff super well (or at all), so I made a list of a lot of things I wish I?d either had a tutorial for, or just picked up along the way after I got Horizons and thought other people might find useful. I hope this is helpful and not just a rambling mess!
Landing on a planet in the first place goes in stages. In order to know if you can land on a planet at all, you can check it in the system map, and if it has a blue outline around it, you can land on it. If you?re targeting it and it shows you the distance and minimum speed, you can land on it. If you?re right up in front of it and there?s a nice blue aura around it, you can land on it.
That blue aura is the orbital zone, and you have to be traveling 200 km/s or slower to safely drop into orbital flight. If you?re traveling too fast and hit that blue area at speed, you?ll drop out of SC and take hull damage. Once orbital flight is engaged, your HUD changes to include an altimeter (?) and also shows your angle relative to the planet?s surface. If you keep within the blue area, you?ll find yourself moving at a very speedy clip around the planet, and if you for whatever reason find yourself on the wrong side of the planet relative to the location you?re trying to reach, just keep in that zone and you?ll be coming up on it in no time.
I?ve said this in a hundred other threads (ever since I blew myself up), but check before you wreck. High-grav, and even standard-grav worlds can kill. Check the gravity of the world in the info tab of the system map by hovering over the planet. Even a .5G planet can kill you if you?re descending too fast, but the higher the gravity, the easier it is to explode. Once you?re out of glide, get a feel for how fast you descend, and at 2km above the surface, just start being real real careful with your descent.
Once you drop to about 25 km above the surface, you can no longer remain in orbital cruise, and will automatically drop into normal flight mode. To safely transition, you need to be traveling at about 2.5 km/s or thereabouts, so if you?re going faster than that and coming up on that altitude, level out or pull up until you?ve slowed down. Once you drop out of orbital cruise, as long as your angle is neither too steep or too light, you?ll enter what?s called a ?glide? (you?ll know your angle is too steep if when in orbital cruise, the display showing your angle of descent turns red). This glide continues your descent at approximately 2.5 km/s until you reach a height of approximately 6km above the surface of the planet, and once the glide concludes you will automatically slow to a less-ridiculous speed, and can level yourself out to your liking depending on the gravity of the world and how confident you?re feeling. During the glide you can angle up and down to cover more/less distance if you need to, but just keep your angle in the blue zone or you will abort the glide and slow way down, and you don?t want to do that if you?re still 20+ km above the surface, since you?re not traveling at km/s?anymore.
If you?re docking at a planetary facility, it?s not entirely different from doing so at a starport, just that there?s gravity involved. You still need to submit a docking request at a minimum of 7500m out, and still need to find the pad which you?re authorized to land on. Docking computers do work here.
If you?re landing on the surface, you?ll need to find a level surface to land on. Once you?re at about 2km above the surface (I hope you?ve been careful with your descent up to this point!), the mini-map will change to display a bit more detail about the terrain, and if your landing gear is deployed, as you continue to descend, you?ll eventually start getting information about whether you even?can?land. Ideally you want somewhere flat, although it?s possible to land at an angle if you position your ship just right. You?ll know you?re hovering over a valid landing spot if the dot under your ship on the radar turns blue, at which point you?ll get some more info about your ship?s orientation and speed, which are intuitive enough that I?m not gonna try to explain them.
In addition to your normal thrust indicator, you also have a vertical speed indicator while planetside (thanks to CMDR Farinton for the remainder of this section). You?ll want to keep an eye on it when you get out of glide, because how fast it fills up can be a great early indicator of how dangerous your landing might be. Anything above a couple of yellow indicators can be bad news on a high-gravity world, and if the indicator is in the red, you?will?destroy your ship if you don?t slow down.
For exploration builds, landing is especially dangerous, because you most likely have minimal thrusters, minimal shields, and a power distribution module that won?t support boosting. For more traditional builds with appropriate modules, if you find yourself falling at an unsafe speed, retract your landing gear, point your thrusters to the ground, and jam that boost button and you might just save your life. If the angle indicator on your HUD is at 90 degrees, your thrusters will be pointed at the surface. For you explorers, just be careful enough not to ever find yourself in such a situation.
One final word of caution: consider turning your lights off if you?re in Open, as it?s just one more little way to make yourself a smaller target. You are incredibly vulnerable when landing, because you?re mass-locked and probably already distracted enough by the process of setting down.
Use free-look or quick-look to interact with your planetary hangar. Most SRV functions that aren?t strictly related to driving and shooting (such as transferring cargo or returning to the ship) are performed using this terminal. On the SRV tab, choose ?deploy?, and enjoy the dropping animation.
If you drive too far away from your ship, it will automatically leave the surface of the planet. This can initially be very confusing if you park your ship outside the trespassing markers (more on these later) when preparing for a planetary base assault, because you won?t be able to call it back down until you?re back outside the base?s limits, and be wondering where the heck it went. Don?t worry, it?s safe (even if maybe you aren?t, cause you?re being chased by a Goliath).
Dismissing your ship right after you disembark is usually a good idea in general, especially if you?re in Open, as it is completely vulnerable while parked anywhere but a landing pad.
Returning to the ship
As long as you?re not within the limits of a planetary base, you can call your ship back at any time using the appropriately-named ?recall ship? command. This takes anywhere between 5 and 30 seconds to happen*, and it will automatically find a safe place for your ship to land and set her down. Sometimes with smaller ships this doesn?t work so great, because it?ll pick a spot that your SRV can?t actually fit under, but what can you do? (Just dismiss and recall). Larger ships have taller landing gear, so this is a far less frequent issue.
*I?m still not sure what actually determines this, but I think it?s a combination of how complicated the landing is going to be (will the ship have to park a few kilometers away?), and how recently your ship left the planet (if you dismiss and then immediately recall as soon as you can, it usually only takes like 5-7 seconds to come back).
As for how you get back into the ship in the first place, you?ll be looking for a glowing orange box on the underside of your ship. Finding the right area feels a little finicky when you?re new, but as long as your SRV is right under the orange area, it?ll get grabbed and rotated into the right position to be pulled into your hangar. There?s also an indicator in the lower right where your cargo scoop and other information is displayed which will light up when you?re in the right spot.
Your SRV is repaired to 100% hull every time you bring it back to the ship, but your?fuel?is static, and will only be replenished if you dock your ship at a landing pad of some kind (you can also synthesize a fuel refill if you have the right materials). You can also perform hull repairs on your SRV while deployed to a planet?s surface using synthesis materials. The components for a basic repair are absurdly common, and in a pinch you can usually find them in minutes.
Materials, Retrieval Missions, and Cruising
The areas you?re looking for while doing missions on a planet outside of bases are called ?Points of Interest?, you can find them on radar while cruising a minimum of 2km above the surface in your ship. Some players also like to change the zoom level of their radar to get the widest possible view (by default this is page up and page down). You?re looking for blue circles on the map. If you set down in that area and jump in your SRV, you are guaranteed to find?something, but in practice, you don?t necessarily even need to seek out PoIs in your ship. Once you learn to read the scanner properly, you?ll find that you?re never more than a few kilometers away from a PoI.
But first you?ll need to learn to read the scanner. It?s hard to explain with text, but I?ll try. The scanner is just the constantly scanning radar-looking thing above your mini-map while you?re in an SRV, and as it scans, you?ll probably notice wave-like patterns appearing on it as you drive. If you see a wave pattern that is like ___ ? ___ or ___ ? ___ or something, that?s gonna be materials, and as long as you keep that oriented in the center of your scanner, it?ll get smaller and smaller until you find the resource, which might be an ?outcrop? or a ?metallic meteorite?, or one of a few other things. You have to shoot it with your SRV?s laser a few times and then it?ll explode, then you open your cargo hatch (Home button by default), target the material, and just drive over it. You can carry up to 300 materials.
If the scanner pattern is something like ____ |||| ____ that means there?s a Point of Interest, but it?s still?far off in the distance. That it?s showing up at all means it?s there though, and you can safely start racing in that general direction. Sometimes you?ll only see one really faint vertical line, but it always means a PoI, because those are the only scanner patterns that will actually reach to the?top?of the scanner. Everything else is materials. Keep the |||s centered, and eventually it will resolve into a more distinctive pattern like??`?or something. It?s hard to do this with text, but the key point is that materials wave patterns will never reach the top of the scanner. Materials and PoIs also have very unique sound patterns. The basic sound for PoIs is easy to learn, because it?s what you?ll hear if you point your SRV at your ship.
If you find a point of interest and it?s guarded by a drone, target it and wait for a scan, cause there?s a very good chance that it?ll be ?wanted? by at least one of the planetary factions. You may get a fine if you don?t check it first unless you?re in an Anarchy system. There?s only two types of PoI I?ve run into so far: crash sites, which can either have salvage (the salvage itself is always legal salvage, but sometimes it?s stuff that?s illegal in your current jurisdiction, like battle weapons or whatever), or a data-point which if you scan it will give you an intel dump which you can sell at stations, and then there?s illegal mining operations, which are basically a field of mining extractors that you can blow up and get some (usually crappy) minerals out of. It?s rarely worth the trouble using the current model of SRV, since its cargo capacity is so terrible, and you?re forced to shuttle back and forth between the site and your ship, but they?re still interesting, and usually well-guarded. It?s my hope that in later updates we?ll see more varied models of SRV, including some with more cargo space.
ENG controls your boosters, and your boosters will save your hull. If you?re on a medium-grav planet, you?ll often find yourself launched into the air when traveling at speed, and a quick discharge of your boosters will slow you enough to avoid any damage. With full ENG pips you can also save yourself a bit of time by just kinda floating above the ground in hilly territory, instead of constantly roller-coastering up and down. Fail to use the boosters properly and you?ll be taking damage left and right unless you?re traveling at an obnoxiously slow pace.
It won?t come up very often, but you can actually boost sideways. This is mostly useful for righting yourself and making sure you don?t land roof-down on low-grav worlds after going over a sweet ramp or something, but still good to know.
If you have an active mission to find a specific type of cargo,?especially?occupied escape pods, the majority of PoIs will contain nothing but that cargo type. This can be exploited for ?find our crashed pilot? style missions because you can accept one mission to find an occupied escape pod, drive around to multiple PoIs, and fill your cargo racks completely, and then just turn those in over and over. They give decent money and good influence.
Similarly, if you have a mission to kill x number of drones, you can just drive around looking for PoIs, and as long as you still have drones to destroy for the mission, you are almost guaranteed to find drones at PoIs (without an active mission, you?re more likely to find them unguarded).
Exploring planets and discovering new elements increases your explorer rating.
One final note on cruising around in your SRV: you can actually turn your shields off entirely when doing anything other than planetary base assaults or PoIs (and honestly you can get away with keeping them off for a single drone or two) if you want to, since the shields don?t protect you from fall damage. I usually run with full pips on ENG and the rest on WEP. Fuel is easy enough to synthesize that you don?t really?need?to turn them off, but if you choose to do so you?ll get a little better fuel efficiency.
Planetary Base Assaults
First and foremost, you can stack base assault missions, and it can be quite lucrative. One of the most popular methods for grinding Empire Rank is to do this on Cubeo (I believe this was first mentioned here by CMDR Rathour), and you can easily find yourself making tens of millions while you rapidly gain ranks.
Once you get the hang of base assaults they aren?t so bad, but, there are basically 3 types of missions: scan, destroy, and?destroy something that fights back.
Generator assaults will generally be something like ?kill the power? or ?open the gate? or something along those lines, and you?re being asked to blow up a generator. Just get in, find it, blow it up, and get out. The first time you enter a planetary base you?re going to be completely lost, but the thing you?re looking for is literally called a generator, everything else that?s stationary will either be very obviously a turret or a data point.
The scanning missions will usually ask you to scan a data terminal. It?s uh?not super complicated, you just need to find the thing. In my experience you?ll usually find it near a gigantic satellite dish. It?s easiest to go into first-person turret mode and target the data point to scan it, as this often allows you to do it from a distance and you can avoid having to maneuver past walls and stuff. In fact, first person turret view is super useful for a lot of things, as it gives you 360 degree rotation, and can let you target distant foes much more accurately. The default button on a 360 controller is left stick click. Even scooping up materials and cargo can be done in first-person turret mode.
The third kind just requires you to kill a pre-determined number of sentry drones. The more you have to kill, the higher the payout, but most facilities won?t have more than 3-4 drones (+1 if you want to count the Goliath*, but those are enough of a pain in the butt to kill that you may not want to bother unless you?re assaulting the base from your ship). As you may recall from earlier, if we don?t find enough sentry drones in the base to get what we need, you can easily just cruise around looking for PoIs and are guaranteed to find some drones until you?ve reached your quota.
*Most bases will have one of these guys, and unless you?re in a ship, it?s not worth engaging with. It?ll eat through your shields in no time flat, and the SRV turret is simply not strong enough to do sustained damage to a Goliath. I recommend avoiding it entirely for your average base run.
When you are coming up on the base to prepare for your assault, you should be aware that depending on the security level of the base, it will have a set level of defenses, which will automatically engage your ship (or SRV) if you get too close. The boundaries for this are defined by a series of helpfully flashing red beacons, usually marking out a 2.5km radius around the base. If you pass by them too low to the ground, you?ll get a warning, and if you don?t leave the area quickly enough, you?ll be fired upon, and the anti-air defenses can actually do a good bit of damage. What I usually do is park my ship RIGHT at the border. Some people will come in low and park within the boundaries because that way you can hop right back in your ship when you?re finished, but it?s all a matter of preference I suppose. Usually I?ll already have plans to grab a few PoIs after the assault, so it?s not a big deal to recall my ship later, but just be aware that if you drive too far away from your ship, it will automatically dismiss itself, and you?can?t?recall your ship when you?re trespassing. You?ll need to leave the base before you can call it back.
Incidentally, boundaries in low-security bases are a bit less clearly defined. You can trespass in your SRV until the cows come home and nobody will care until you start shooting something. You can trespass pretty blatantly in your ship, too, but once you get within about a kilometer or so the base will finally wake up and ask you to leave. If you?re doing missions in a low-sec base, feel free to park close by, and recon the area in your SRV so you?ll know where everything is when you start shooting.
There is one final type of activity that you can do in bases, which is almost like a scanning mini-game. Bases have a number of non-mission-related data points, and when you scan one, a timer starts counting down. If you manage to scan another data point before time is up, you?ll get more time added, and if you manage to scan ALL of the data points in time, you?ll get a nice little data package that you can sell for credits. It?s not a lot of credits, and you?ll usually have to go to another area of the bubble to sell it (e.g. I steal data from an Empire-affiliated faction, I have to go to Federation space to sell it), but it can be a fun challenge trying to find all the data points and ridge racer your little space buggy around the base.
Good luck out there, Commanders! o7