If you’ve been following my twitter feed (@dagorym), you’ll have noticed that I’ve been tweeting a lot using the #NewHorizons and #PlutoFlyby hashtags about the New Horizons mission to Pluto. By the time you’re reading this the closest approach encounter will be over, although we may not have the first images back yet.
Needless to say, I’ve been quite excited about this mission. I can honestly say I’ve been waiting for these pictures for nearly my entire life. I’ve been interested in astronomy for as long as I can remember and Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, was always one of my heroes as a kid. I remember going to the local university to watch pictures come down live from Voyager 2′s encounter with Neptune back in 1989 and being disappointed that there was no way for that amazing spacecraft (which is still sending us data nearly 40 years after launch) to make it to Pluto. And then all the proposed missions to Pluto not being funded or canceled.
If I had been in a closer field of astronomy, I may very well have ended up working on this mission in some way (I ended up working in high energy astrophysics instead of planetary astronomy). I’ve met the Primary Investigator of New Horizons, Alan Stern, and my wife knows him as well. I was lucky enough to see the New Horizons spacecraft in the clean room at Goddard Spaceflight Center just before it was sent down to Kennedy Space Center to be mounted on it’s launch vehicle. And like the science and mission operations teams of New Horizons, I’ve been patiently waiting for the past nine years for the spacecraft to complete this first leg of its journey.
So what does all of this have to do with gaming? I mean, this is supposed to be a gaming blog. Well for today there are a couple of things I want to talk about.
Space is Vast
We all know that, but sometimes, maybe always, we forget what that really means.
I mentioned at the beginning that the closest approach was over but we may not have images yet. There is two reasons for that. First, the spacecraft can’t transmit while taking data as it’s radio antenna isn’t pointed at Earth and it has a busy observing schedule for the next few hours to collect as much data as possible as it zips through the Pluto system. But just as importantly, even if it could transmit at the same time, the light travel time from Pluto to Earth is just around 4.5 hours at the moment.
Closest approach was at 7:49 EDT. That means that the soonest we’d possibly start getting data from that closest approach image is sometime after noon. (This if it started transmitting immediately. It truth it will be about 6.5 hours later) Think about the scales involved here. When bouncing a radio signal (or laser) off the Moon, the round trip travel time is about 1.5 seconds. Here we’re talking about 9 hours.
What does this mean for your game. Well, if you’re out in the outer parts of your system, away from any bits of civilization, it’s going to be awfully quiet. You’re not going to just get on the radio and have a conversation. You might send a message but it will be hours before you get a reply. It means no one will be looking over your shoulder but it also means you’re not calling in the cavalry either. You are on your own.
This is even more true if you’re off exploring other star systems. In that case, normal radio communications will take years to make the one-way trip and then may not even be detectable unless you’ve got a really big antenna.
Of course this all assumes you’re using “normal” communication methods that are limited by the speed of light (i.e. radio, modulated laser beams, etc.) If you have some faster than light communication method this may not apply. But if it’s not instantaneous, then there may still be a lag of some sort.
Have you ever role-played that delay with your players?
I mentioned that it took nine years for New Horizons to make it to Pluto after launch. That may seem like a long time, and I guess it is. But New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft to ever leave Earth orbit. (It doesn’t hold the record for the spacecraft which has achieved the highest velocity any longer but it still is the one that started out the fastest.)
New Horizons made it to Jupiter in 13 months. Compare that to the nearly 2 years it took Voyager 2 to make the same trip. That’s still a long time to be coasting along. Most sci-fi games have some sort of “magic” propulsion system that cuts these travel times down significantly but even so, the travel times can be measured in days, weeks, or months. Even if you could accelerate at 1 g to the half way point, flip over and decelerate at 1 g to your destination, the trip to Jupiter takes almost 6 days and the trip to Pluto would take about 38 days. What are your players doing during this time? And if you don’t have something like that to speed up the travel, go rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey to remind yourself what real space travel is like on these long trips.
There are some other insights to be takes from this mission but I’ll save those for a future post.
Using it in Your Game
Do you convey the vastness of space in your game? Do you make your players aware of the time passing and the distances involved in their travels? It’s a great way to convey a little bit of the wonder and grandeur of the cosmos and maybe make them feel just a little bit small an insignificant. Share your space scale stories in the comments below.