Sunday, September 16, 2012

Exodus under the magnifying glass (1) - Drives

Now that Exodus: Proxima Centauri is only one step away from getting in the hungry hands on the players, it is time to give a more detailed overview of what is happening in the game and the background strory of those parts that required long hours of research, thinking and evaluation.

I always said that I wanted to give my board games a hint of realism. Exodus is a sci-fi game, which makes it on one hand easier because it states from the very beginning that everything is permitted and on the other hand harder because people expect to find things at the border of their imagination making it hard to stay realistic.

But enough with the introduction, I will get straight to the point and in this first post I will explain the Drives.

Drives in Exodus: Proxima Centauri
Every space ship has a drive that provides power for it and allows it to fly at very high speeds. But before I get into the Exodus drives, let's go through a quick overview of the fastest man-made vehicles today.

Speed records today

The record for the fastest manned vehicle is 39,985.2 km/h (or 24,846 mph) and it dates back to 1969 and it was achieved by Apollo 10 on the way back from the moon. At this speed, Apollo 10 would take 1 billion hours or 114,000 years to fly the 39,900,000,000,000 kilometers (or 24,800 billion miles) to Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth.

The speed record for the fastest man-made object is 252,800 km/h (or 157,100) reached by the solar probe Helios-2. At this speed a trip to Proxima Centauri would take 18,000 years. That's still a very long time.

Space travel projects

So far, the majority of man-made spacecrafts are using conventional fuels. The limited speed and distance they can travel make this technology unsuitable to attempt interstellar journey. The hope lay for a long time with nuclear (fission) propulsion. Projects like Longshot proposed nuclear fission engines that would take an unmanned vehicle to the Centauri system in about 100 years.

Taking into consideration initiatives like Project Icarus, one can assume that during the next hundred years humanity will have the technology to reduce the travel time to Proxima Centauri to less than 1 millennium.

Space travel in Exodus: Proxima Centauri

The story of humanity in Exodus: Proxima Centauri starts with leaving Earth in 2389 in space crafts powered by nuclear (fission) drives that would cover the distance to Proxima Centauri in a few hundred years. But this happens before the game starts...

The first ship engines in the game are still the 'classical' Nuclear Drives. They're using fission reaction and pushing the space ships to speed up to 30 million km/h (or 8300 km/s). I imagined these engines would be an upgrade of what humanity is researching in the 21st century, based on a technology that we can already master. Even if this speed seems enormous, it is still several level of magnitude lower than the speed of light, making a trip from Earth to the Centauri system last for a century and a half. The only use for such a drive would be interplanetary travel. For example, a trip across our solar system would take around 1 year.

In Exodus, the Fusion Drive is the first transport technology that humans learn 'from scratch' from the Centaurians. There have been projects on Earth to develop fusion engines, but until today humanity is still quite far from being able to produce fusion energy for civil use. The technology in the game "uses the principle of magnetized target fusion, confining super-heated plasma with very strong magnetic fields". 

The source of inspirations is an ongoing project which attempts to achieve nuclear fusion in an efficient less expensive way. Magnetized target fusion "features of the more widely studied magnetic confinement fusion (MCF) and inertial confinement fusion (ICF) approaches" (Wikipedia). There are two ways we are trying nowadays to develop fusion reactors. The first one is to confine fissionable matter using magnetic fields to achieve pressure and temperature for the fusion reaction. Its advantage is that it can achieve the conditions for up to a second, quite long compared to the second way which is to compress the fuel using ultra high-energy lasers. 

A superior civilization like the Centaurians from Exodus: Proxima Centauri managed to combine these two methods, using magnetic fields for confinement and high-power lasers for ignition and the result was a stable average size fusion reactor which they further adapted for space travel.

In the game, the Fusion Drives are pushing the ships to velocities up to 120 million mph  (or 190 million km/h), almost relativistic speeds, fast enough to cover short interstellar journeys (Earth to Proxima Centauri in 24 years). Even though humans have researched this technology for centuries, it looks like the more advanced Centaurians perfected it.

The last drive featured in Exodus: Proxima Centauri is the Antigravity Drive. This idea came to me while browsing the internet when I stumbled upon an article about a "new antigravity solution will enable space travel near speed of light".  Dr. Felber found a new solution to Einstein's gravitational field equation which is supposed to offer a solution for space crafts to achieve relativistic velocities allowing at the same time the space vehicles to be manned. Although some believe this is yet another piece of pathological science, the scientific community did not dismiss this theory. This theory states that a body moving at more than 57.7% of the speed of light repels masses in front of it "creating a narrow antigravity beam". The repelling force grows with the increase in speed and any body inside the beam would "fall weightlessly", being some sort of "hitch-hiker". We haven't yet found the way to accelerate anything close to the speed of light, but apparently the Centaurians did.

The Antigravity Drive powering a space ships can take it to speeds up to 610 million mph (or 980 million km/h) representing 90.8% of the speed of light. This technology remains largely not understood by humans, though they are eager to use it. It would allow medium interstellar travel, a trip from Earth to Proxima Centauri taking around 5 years at full speed.

Stay tuned, in the next article, I will debate the Cannons.

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