Most games lose their relevance after a few years, but the indie rocket building game Kerbal Space Program is a little different. It’s a 10-year-old underdog of a game with a cult of programmers, engineers, astronaut candidates, and your typical secular explosion enthusiasts, and it has a unique, active community of bug-fixing modders. , adding new features, and generally keeping the game fresh for almost a decade.

In the game, you are the omniscient director of a space program made up of little green men (and beloved little green woman Valentina Kerman – we see you, pioneer) who you send to the sky in a spaceship of yours. own design. It often feels like watching those old blurry videos of rockets being launched back down straight into an explosion of flaming schadenfreude: you feel a little scared, a little sadistic, and you really want to try again.

Art imitates life

One of the most prolific Kerbal modders is Chris Adderley, Nertea in the game, who is an engineer at the Canadian Space Company MDA per day, by designing ground-based systems that retrieve data from spacecraft. But in his spare time, Adderley takes the pilot’s seat himself. He started to play Kerbal Space Program shortly after its release, and in 2013 began building its first mod for the game – a spare parts pack, including a xenon fuel tank and a magnetoplasmadynamic thruster (try saying this three times faster) .

Since then, he has designed dozens of additional modules, including a Mark IV spaceplane and space station add-ons like centrifuges and inflatable habitats.

“I’m building things that I would love to see us as a species build in the future,” says Adderley.

Recently, Addlerley decided to take some of the more plausible theoretical rocket engine concepts from the future and bring them into the game, thus introducing a way for gamers to try out these sci-fi games. Notions in a simulated environment that can teach us how they might actually work, on a more practical level, in the future.

Adderley combed through dozens of scientific papers outlining the theoretical blueprints for these ultra-advanced propulsion systems, looking for which ones were the most realistic.

“Everyone is trying to sell their project as the propulsion system of the future,” says Adderley. “You have to kind of be thinking a little bit critically about what people are waving.”

He calculated the numbers, considered how much horsepower a specific engine would need, how to handle the heat produced, and how to harness the energy to propel the virtual rocket further. “It was super fun, which might be a super cheesy statement, but you know.”

In the end, he built 13 different engine concepts, including fusion engines, like The extentEpstein’s training is theorized to be: fission engines and antimatter rockets.

While we don’t yet have the technology to implement these specific impulse demons, there is real value in being able to simulate advanced engines in a low-stakes environment. In fact, it’s such a good sandbox that engineers at SpaceX and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used Kerbal graphics in their presentations. In 2018, NASA released Open MCT, a telemetry data visualization software designed for the operation of spacecraft, to the public on Github. It is expensive and time consuming to test these systems on real spacecraft, so some participants ran their programs through Kerbal instead.

For Sumontro Sinha, an aerospace engineer and fusion researcher at the Propulsion Research Lab at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Kerbal is the go-to for testing new ideas and training new engineers.

“Instead of PowerPoint slides and equation pages, just build the ship and see how it works,” he says. “If it works in Kerbal then it has a good chance of working in real life. “

Power donut

the spherical tokamak fusion engine is based on the fictional spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, without HAL the killer AI. Adderley found the real science behind it in a NASA study, in which the lead author of the article, Craig Williams, claims that NASA has funded a number of projects focused on the development of advanced propulsion systems. Williams’ team designed an engine that uses the energy produced by a fusion reaction to generate thrust. Fusion occurs naturally inside stars like our sun, where light atoms are superheated to the point where their electrons and neutrons decouple and the neutrons, normally repelling each other, merge and produce massive amounts of energy. One of the biggest challenges in producing this energy on Earth is that you need a way to confine the resulting plasma and harness its power.

One way to do this is to use a tokamak, a device that generates a donut-shaped magnetic field that holds the superheated plasma in place. In Williams’ prototype engine, this tokamak would be almost spherical, looking more like a donut hole. The produced exhaust would propel the vehicle to over 166,000 mph, taking passengers to Jupiter in just under 4 months. To put this in perspective, the Voyager space probe is pulling away from our solar system at 35,000 mph.

When Williams’ article came out in 2001, the authors wrote that the ability to produce this type of engine could take 30 years. Now that we are in 2021, Williams is revising his estimate. “We’re probably not any closer,” he says. His article came out at a time of enthusiasm for advanced propulsion, but much of that zeal has waned until recently. “You can’t really make a lot of progress when there isn’t an active program going on,” he says. “Until you restart the clock, that 30-year projection will continue to move forward.” Pity. But in the decades leading up to the human age of the two-week Saturn vacation, you can still try your own digital version of Williams’ engine.

Ride nuclear lightning

Post-combustion fission fragment rocket engine is based on another 2011 NASA-funded engine concept study that uses energy created in nuclear reactions to propel a spacecraft forward. Reactors filled with Americium, a rare, highly radioactive material that is a by-product of nuclear reactions driven by uranium, generates fission products that flow into a chamber. This chamber is injected with hydrogen gas, which is intensely excited when it encounters the fission fragments and generates a plasma which is channeled through a powerful magnetic nozzle as a thrust.

With this breakthrough, a round trip to Mars would take 292 days, including a 60-day stay on the planet. While the engine is slower overall than a fusion engine, it is much closer to what we are technologically capable of today.

“The thermal nuclear rocket is a technology under development and it has already been demonstrated,” says Jason Cassibry, who heads the Propulsion Research Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In April, DARPA selected three entrepreneurs to demonstrate the first phase of a nuclear thermal rocket, and NASA and DOE have released a call for similar projects in February. Cassibry says the fission fragment and nuclear pulse engines aren’t far behind, but they have additional technical hurdles to contend with, including how to divert all that energy from the spacecraft’s hull so that it doesn’t burn in the air. ‘space.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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