I've put this down elsewhere in the past, but I would like to propose the following as a non-combat option to the game that is on par with the level of detail on the combat side and not just some simple "PacMan" minigame:
Synopsis: Most of the game is devoted almost entirely to combat, while the few "diplomatic" missions available are rather formulaic and dull. The exploration component at this point in time is either uneventful resource gathering or mixed with diplomatic/combat components.
In Star Trek episodes (and even a couple of movies) we have seen our favorite scientists involved in what starts as a routine survey of planetary system, only to have it turn into an exciting detective episode, a First Contact scenario, or even a case where the Prime Directive applies. These required careful thought on the part of our heroes as well as the individual skills they were known for in the sciences.
The mechanism I propose can utilize some of the existing in-game tools to randomly generate planets/star systems with particular characteristics---planet class, civilization level, biological/mineral content, etc. Each unexplored planet would be equipped with a number of what I will call "Survey Nodes" on the planet. These are locations that represent the surface of the planet and all of its various possible environments, determined from the composition data that is generated. For example, Earth would contain a large variety of environments that could be surveyed for mineral and biological content. In each node, there will be a chance of discovering a trace element, encountering a creature, or having an important ground mission type occur (diplomacy, first contact, observe for prime directive, combat). Perhaps the planet supports some unique element that is worthy of a "Discovery Accolade" that can be published game wide.
In terms of game mechanics, the number of nodes would be based on the variables in the environment of the planet, but should probably be at least 10. As these nodes are surveyed successfully (mission objectives), the percentage complete status of the survey can be updated. Credit (reward, etc.) is given only when the survey is fully and successfully completed. All of these would involve selectable ground missions to complete. For the space component, this would be equivalent to an orbital scan of the planet prior to having the missions available. The results of the scan could be tied to the player's sensor/science skills, making them more useful than they are now as well, along with the class of vessel involved. This would result in missions that have detail on what's available to scan in the area with extreme detail for the most advanced players, to nothing but site locations for those with minimal skills and equipment.
We know from past statements that a full survey of a planet can take days, even weeks to accomplish. With this mechanism, teams of players can accomplish the mission in much shorter time, supporting team play.
I can envision many other details that could be added to the game experience. Most of the data and capabilities already exist in the game except for the player interface so this shouldn't be a completely new effort. Hopefully someone will read the idea and get one of those "lightbulb' moments.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading...comments welcome.