Separation System

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Separation System is a process whereby the primary (saucer) and secondary (engineering) hulls of a Starfleet starship separate, allowing the two sections to operate independently. Some vessels such as the Prometheus-class may separate into three separate sections.

Separation is a standard mode of protecting starship crews from catastrophic failure in a major component of the ship. Most Starfleet designs feature a section of the hull that is capable of separating; currently almost invariably of saucer shape, that houses most crew facilities and at least one command center. In case of failure to other ship components, the saucer is severed from the rest of the ship and acts as a large lifepod. The saucer can perform controlled planetary landing or remain in orbit, normally sustaining life for at least a year for 100% of the occupants. Ship separation is thus preferred to lifepod ejection, since the latter offers markedly lower survival odds both in immediate landing and prolonged orbital stay.

Some starship designs are capable of repeated separation and redocking of one or more of their major components. For example the Galaxy-class saucer can be separated even at high warp to propel part of the crew to safety while the rest of the ship engages in dangerous activity. Operationally, such ship separation is rarely viable except for catastrophic failure situations.

Reference

TOS: "The Apple" - Saucer Separation is mentioned as a last resort.
TNG: Many - The Enterprise-D shown separating and re-docking in several episodes.
VOY: "Message in a Botle" - The Prometheus-class was capable of separating into 3 separate sections and redocking.
ST: Generations - After a warp core breach the separated saucer crash-landed on Veridian III