Welcome to another Gaming on the Fringe. I hadn’t planned on doing another entry so quickly after the last, but after losing myself for over a week in No Man’s Sky I had to write about the game. While I could go on and on about how much I’m loving it and attack the critics, I won’t. Instead, I want to look at the three propulsion systems in-game and see if they compare to any real world technology, practical or theortical, based on how it works in-game and how it’s powered.
Before we get started I’m going to give you a quick lesson in nuclear physics. If you have a fair grasp of science feel free to skip this section. The “nuclear” part refers to the nucleus, or center of an atom. When scientists talk about elements they are talking about materials whose atoms all are the same. An atom is made up of three kinds of particles: positively charged protons, negatively charged electrons which orbit the nucleus, and neutral neutrons – see what they did there? The atomic number – the number an element is labeled with on the Periodic Table, that big list you saw in science class – refers to the number of protons/electrons in the element’s atoms. A standard atom of an element is balanced between positive and negative charged particles; the neutrons can be added since it doesn’t affect the charged balance of the atom. For example, the most basic and common element in the universe is Hydrogen, which has an atomic number of 1 and thus has one proton and one electron. If an atom of an element is plus/minus one electron or proton this is called an ion. If the element has more neutrons than normal this is called an isotope and is usually named by the element followed by what the new atomic weight is – i.e. Plutonium-241 instead of Plutonium’s normal 240. Now, we can use atoms for various things including power generation and of course nuclear weapons. If a large atom – a higher atomic number – is split it loses neutrons to energy conversion governed by the famous formula E = Mc². This means the Energy released is equal to the Mass converted times c, the speed of light in a vacuum squared or 186,000 miles per second times 186,000 miles per second. Fusion is when you smash two atoms together to form a different element. The sun and all stars do this with hydrogen by fusing heavier isotopes of hydrogen that possess neutrons into the next element up, helium. The neutrons are converted to energy and you get fusion power, the current holy grail of science. Alright, dry lesson over. Let’s get to gaming stuff.
The first propulsion system you get is the launch thruster, which allows your ship to launch off planet and into space. The game uses the odd system of measurement called “u” to measure distance, but for the life of me I cannot find anywhere on the internet where this is converted into real life units. The launch thruster is not very fast, especially compared to the other two propulsion systems, but it lets you get around the surfaces of planets quite well. What’s interesting to me is that when launching from a planetary surface there are no scorch marks on the ground nor do we see any kind of damage from flying in atmosphere. The sounds it makes while starting up and boosting to higher speeds leads me to believe that this is just a very efficient form of jet engine, and one that uses a fission power plant thus the requirement of Plutonium. Plutonium is interesting as we only see trace amounts of it in nature. We in fact discovered it by bombarding uranium in a cyclotron – a particle accelerator that spins atoms around like a mad science version of a merry-go-round – which fused into a new element that was heavier. This element is very fissile naturally, which means we don’t have to do too much to encourage nuclear fission. This is why it was used in atomic bombs before we developed thermonuclear fusion bombs. Essentially, the plutonium is not fuel for the engine but for the power plant that powers the jet engine. It’s certainly a jet engine that’s far faster than what our current examples can do but hey, this is far future stuff so I’m sure there are a few advances here and there.
The next propulsion system you get is called the pulse drive. The pulse drive allows you to do in-system “pulse jumps” to reach other planets far quicker – almost 100 times quicker – than with the standard cruising speed. As I was first playing the game I assumed, incorrectly, that pulse jumping was low tier faster-than-light or FTL. Instead, as I was waiting for the jump to get me to the next planet I noticed the speedometer had maxed out at 9,999u. This, along with the compression of viewable space in front of the starship, leads me to think this is actually a relativistic travel option. While the thaumium that is used to power it is part of the game’s “alternative periodic table,” I think that the pulse engine is actually a fusion torch. A fusion torch is a theoretical drive where the plasma from a fusion reaction is expelled out the back of the ship which allows much higher travel than we currently have. The best part is that we could harvest hydrogen from space. Doing so would lower the fuel carrying requirements as in the famous Bussard Ramjet so that we could continue on for many years. This would of course require our fusion technology to be far better than what we currently have, but I’m sure that will happen. As an amusing side note, one very controversial fusion powered rocket technology is currently illegal. Originally called the Orion Drive, this would use nuclear bombs detonated directly behind the ship to propel it. Thought up by legendary physicist Freeman Dyson, this idea is “crazy awesome” incarnate. Even better, if you are being chased by antagonistic aliens or space pirates once you start up this drive they are screwed.
Now, science fiction and physics fans among you may have a different idea of what the pulse drive is. You might be thinking ion drive, which fires ions out the back of the ship like a machine gun to slowly accelerate the ship up to a usable speed. We actually have this technology currently, and use it for things like the recent probes to Pluto as well as satellites. As a terrestrial example, imagine you’re sitting in a office chair with a .22 rifle. We’re ignoring things like friction, ammo and what happens to the area you’re firing at for this. If you sit in your chair and regularly fire the rifle you will start to slowly accelerate from recoil. Do this hundreds of times a minute and you’ll gain a good amount of acceleration. This is exactly what the ion drive does but the problem is that you can’t have the pulse jump shown in the game with an ion drive. If you were thinking ion drive, good catch but unfortunately wrong.
Let’s talk the speed of a pulse jump. The speedometer tops out at 9,999 u but interestingly it looks like a quirk of the interface, as you can see in this capture. It looks like it stops because of the other text. Perhaps it’s more like 99,999 u or higher? If the u is actually a percentage of lightspeed this makes perfect sense. You can never achieve lightspeed, but you can achieve high fractions of it including 99.99%. The problem is that the game doesn’t seem to take time dilation into account. When you travel close to the speed of light time slows for you; while years may pass outside of your ship you might only experience a few weeks or months. To be fair, it may be that you don’t see a lot of the outside world while jumping so I may just be missing seeing the effects. The designers of the game have stated they made the planets much closer in the game than a real world star system would be, and this adds to my lightspeed argument. Most planets are about a minute or two apart while jumping and in the real world the planets are many light minutes apart. Venus is two light-minutes from Earth, while Mars is four; a light-minute is the distance light travels in minute, or 11,160,000 miles. For the furthest travel, Earth to Pluto, it takes 5.5 light-hours of travel. Luckily, the game condenses this for us.
Finally, we come to the big one, hyperdrive. The hyperdrive requires warp cells, but each one allows you to go faster than light so you can get to the next star system quickly. The game cleverly uses the FTL section as a loading screen to generate the next star system. What’s very interesting to me is that the speedometer shows the starship is not moving relative to outside space, while in front of the ship is a compression of spacetime. Interestingly, the warp cells required to make a FTL trip require antimatter, which the flavor text states contains both baryonic (normal, everday matter) counter matter and negative matter. My take is that despite the name “hyperdrive” invoking some sort of hyperspace, what we actually have is an implementation of the Alcubierre warp drive. I covered the entirety of the theoretical warp drive in that article but here is a tl;dr version. By compressing spacetime in front of a ship while expanding it behind, which requires negative energy/matter, you can make a bubble of spacetime that can exceed lightspeed. The compressed forward spacetime, negative matter and local non-motion all point to using a version of the Alcubierre metric to effectively exceed the lightspeed barrier. The fact that you can’t steer during a FTL transit makes even more sense when you consider that the standard Alcubierre metric would essentially make blind jumps while in FTL. To use a sci-fi analogy, this is more like Star Trek’s warp drive than Star Wars’ hyperspace. It makes sense the warp cell is used up each trip as once you activate the warp bubble – yeah, Dr. Alcubierre used this term since he’s a huge fan of sci-fi – you would need more negative matter to start another one. Gravity manipulation exists in the No Man’s Sky universe as seen in the gravity on space stations and other structures so the forward compression would be a simple matter of aiming gravity at that spot.
These are of course just my interpretations based upon the information in the game. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, but I think these are solid theories of the propulsion systems in-game. The game itself doesn’t bother to explain nearly anything about its technology, which is common for space opera settings. The lack of solid information is what makes it fun to speculate how it actually works and I had fun making these intellectual leaps. I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thanks for reading.