Although the physical world in No Man’s Sky adheres closer to the immutable laws of physics better than nearly every video game before it, the same can’t really be said about how the game emulates modern technology. Because it doesn’t. Taking its cues from a century-and-a-half worth of science fiction, No Man’s Sky presents a world where people can jet off to star systems a few dozen light-years away in under a minute, land their ship down on the ground easily and quickly, and jet right back off into space in a matter of seconds.
This is not the way we currently do space travel — obviously. The bigger question, however, is could we one day possess this kind of spacecraft technology? How close are we from one day riding off into vast interstellar worlds in tiny one-seater ships?
The answer: Nowhere near close.
There are a lot of things the ships in No Man’s Sky are capable of doing that current technology cannot, but there are two critical capabilities that are impossible for our ships today.
The first is launching out into space. We all know that when we want to send something out of Earth’s atmosphere, we attach it to a big-ass rocket that has the kind of massive thrust necessary for getting a spacecraft outside the planet’s atmospheric and gravitational forces. This requires a whole mess of power.
For example, to get something into orbital space and make sure it has the necessary speed to stay in space (and not fall back towards the ground), a rocket needs to have enough thrust to go at about 17,600 mph. If you want to escape Earth’s gravity completely in order to travel to the moon or other planets, you need to leave the atmosphere at about 25,000 mph.
In No Man’s Sky, if you want to take your starship into space, you basically spring off the ground with a light thruster, and then it’s your job to accelerate out of the atmosphere. Apparently, in No Man’s Sky, this is no problem for a dinky little ship.
And why isn’t that a problem? Well, it brings up the second major capability that shatters what’s possible with current (or even distant future) technology — faster than light speed travel.
If a starship is able to escape a planet’s gravity on its own, then it’s not exactly much of a stretch of the imagination to assume it might also be able to move across light-years of distance in outer space in just a few short seconds. How does this work in No Man’s Sky? Through hyperspace — a theoretical dimension of spacetime where the normal laws of physics break down. It’s unclear as to how the people of the game manage to harness hyperspace, but there it is.
Will we ever have the technology that lets us surpass these obstacles? When it comes to launching things into space, we’re still heavily tied to high-powered rockets. In fact, we’re building bigger fuel-powered rockets just to make it to Mars and beyond. Companies like SpaceX are working to make rockets reusable to make spaceflight cheaper, but that doesn’t mean getting rid of rockets outright.
There are some more fringe ideas about launching objects into space using space guns — which have an incredibly poor track record — and space elevators (which, if even feasible, would only really get us to orbit). For probably the next century, getting into deep space means rockets, rockets, and more rockets.
That leaves making fast interstellar travel possible. We’re not even sure if hyperspace exists, so that’s out of the question. There are certainly people trying to work on super-fast propulsion that could perhaps make light-speed travel possible, but let’s just say Newtonian physics is still an obstacle. As weird as it sounds, the only thing that might make faster than light speed travel work is a wormhole. And that has less to do with our technology and more to do with the universe itself.
Right now, the most feasible experimental propulsion system scientists are working on is based on photonics lasers — which could one day allow us to send spacecraft to Mars in just a three-day journey.
Beyond that, most theoretical astrophysicists and engineers aren’t even conceiving of one-person starships as what interstellar travel will look like. Instead, it’s more likely we’re going to use incredibly massive spacecraft that are able to carry hundreds or even thousands of people to and from different worlds. Those kinds of ships would be slower, but they could house people for a very long time.
Don’t hold your breath for starships like No Man’s Sky. It’s more likely we’ll see people harnessing a different innovation from the game — a simulated reality that creates itself on the go, and in which people could perhaps live out their lives. That is, if we’re not already trapped in one.
Photos via Hello Games