Every few years, science fiction seems to bring us a more serious and realistic view of the future. The sixties had 2001: A Space Odyssey; the seventies gave us the ecological classic Silent Running. With the eighties and the advent of Star Wars-style sci-fi, some of that seriousness was lost in the hopes of entertaining the masses with epic space battles, lasers, robot and romance. Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece Gravity showed studios that serious, science based fiction could not only fill theater seats, but better yet get the masses to pay for such luxuries as IMAX and 3d. Christopher Nolan’s foray into serious science fiction, Interstellar, is following in Gravity’s footsteps, with it opening in a few weeks nationwide in traditional, 3d, IMAX, 70mm, and every other modern format imaginable.
The full marketing juggernaut of Paramount is behind the film. If you happen to miss one of the myriad trailer appearing before films, on TV or the Internet, the mobile and browser-based video games will whet your appetite for hardcore science fiction. In fact, we here at Topless Robot spent countless hours playing the games in the Interstellar universe, desperate to find clues into what will really happen in the film. Between the game and the trailers, we think we have a pretty good idea of the shape of things to come. We hope were right; if I have to spend another nanosecond playing that boring-ass video game, my face might melt Toht-style.
In researching the science of Interstellar and how the game might reflect said science, we took to the Interwebz. There are literally thousands of articles which could educate you on the hypothetical spaceship Endurance‘s mission would be like, though as I started reading them, I discovered why NASA had ignored my astronaut application. By the second or third paragraph of these journal articles, my mind was like Homer Simpson’s while sitting on a trial jury.
Knowing that I couldn’t just pass the buck, I reached out to a good friend – who also happens to double as a rocket scientist – for some explanations, though due to the nature of his work (he doesn’t work for NASA, Space X or anyone that doesn’t require a massive security clearance), he has requested to stay anonymous. He was happy to oblige and was able to explain things monosyllabically and with crayon so that I could understand it and hopefully pass it along. That being said, please don’t kill me if my understanding of the science is a little sideways. With that out of the way, let’s explore Interstellar the scientific way, from what we’ve seen in its trailers and video games. Come with me!
1. Nolan and Newton, Sitting in a Tree
If there’s one thing the game (and likely the movie) gets right, it’s the physics of space travel. As you launch your ship into the solar system, only two things will stop you: braking thrusters or an object. According to our resident rocket scientist, this is certainly true.
The use of Newtonian physics in the game and the movie will make the space scenes of the film more like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica than Star Wars or Star Trek. Also, don’t expect sound in space. While it doesn’t exist in real life, it won’t likely play a role in the film. The game is silent, aside from the happy ding you hear when collecting data points, and it’s likely the film will be the same way. While the game seems to understand Newtonian physics, it doesn’t seem to understand propulsion in space, as you’ll soon find out.
2. Starships Don’t Work in Deep Space, Unless You Have POWER!!!
Interstellar: The Game has your ship depending on two separate power sources: Solar power collected by orbiting stars, and the unspecified fuel you presumably carry with you from Earth. While power is certainly a necessity to keep our astronauts alive, the engines running and much more, the key to the mission isn’t so much power as it is propulsion. According to our consultant, there are two types of propulsion in space: Chemical and Electric.
Chemical is essentially the Wile E. Coyote version of space travel. You strap a big ass rocket between your legs, light the fuse and hold on tight. It literally is the burning of chemicals to produce thrust. Solid rockets, like the Saturn V, are fire and forget thrusters: once you fire it, forget about stopping it. Other chemical thrusters are controllable, like the ones used in the space shuttle for course corrections. The benefit of chemical propulsion is you can achieve a moderate velocity in a short period of time. The disadvantage is the amount of fuel you need to get to those speeds. To put this in perspective, the space shuttle could use its orbital maneuvering system for a total of fifteen hours, a relatively short period of time in regards to deep space travel.
Electric propulsion is much more efficient on long trips, though it sacrifices acceleration for efficiency. Propulsion is achieved by pumping Xenon through charges plates and expelling it. The benefit is that you can go much further and faster using electric propulsion, but it takes a lot longer to build up speed. For example, a trip to the moon using chemical propulsion takes two to three days, whereas the same trip using an electric drive would take about nine months. Over a longer travel time, electric wins out because of the greater speed it can achieve, and the much smaller fuel source it would need.
From what we can gather in playing the Interstellar game, by the time the Endurance leaves Earth, another type of propulsion system will have to have been created. While solar power could be used to power the electric drive, you would still need a chemical catalyst like xenon. Orbiting a sun could charge your batteries, but it wouldn’t refill your ship’s supply of xenon.
If the issues of supply and demand weren’t enough, the physics of the ship in the game demand another propulsion source. The game’s Endurance, while unable to stop and start on a dime, maneuvers and accelerates much faster than possible with an electric propulsion system. It’s likely the means of thrust could be explained by one of the two propulsion types NASA’s Sonny White has been working on, the Alcubierre Warp Drive or the Quantum Vacuum Plasma Thruster. While the Warp Drive would produce speeds faster than light, negating the need for wormholes and slingshotting around black holes, it’s more likely the Endurance would use the Q Thruster, as its limitless fuel source could prolong the mission for as long as necessary, opening up the doors to lots of gratuitous sex scenes.
3. Deus Ex Wormhole
In order to save the population of the Earth, the crew of the Endurance is going to have to leave the solar system. No planet in our system is even remotely capable to supporting life, and any attempt to terraform a world like Mars would likely take far longer than humanity has to live. With no black hole in our vicinity (thank God), there isn’t any object nearby which could accelerate the Endurance to as close to lights speed as needed to get to even our nearest neighboring star system. Enter wormholes.
If the game is any indicator, wormholes are about as rare as men dressed as Sailor Scouts at anime cons – if you look hard enough, you will find at least one. After completing your objectives in a particular solar system, you pilot your ship into the nearest conveniently placed wormhole, and head to the next solar system.
It was Douglas Adams who expressed perfectly just how large space really was. The idea that entering a wormhole will deposit you off into another solar system implies that in the universe of Interstellar, humanity can either create, control, or at the very least, navigate through wormholes. The odds that a wormhole would drop you off into a planet-filled solar system are astronomical. The idea that you could plan your trip around several wormholes firmly plants Interstellar into the fiction part of science fiction.
4. These Are the Droids We’re Looking for
One of the most interesting scenes in the last trailer for Interstellar depicted our heroes walking the surface of an unknown world, accompanied by a robot that looked a lot like my son’s Minecraft inventions. Presumably, it is designed in such a fashion in hopes that it could be transformable, able to convert into different modes as mission parameters required. While Interstellar shows us meat bags leading the charge into space, it’s likely that in the real world, humanity’s saviors would have shiny metal butts for us to bite
One of the projects brought to our attention by our rocket scientist calls for a space-based robot that could effectively build and repair satellites. In a situation where time is so much of the essence, self-replicating robot probe vessels could very well be the technology we would go for rather than fling ourselves into the void. If you launched a self-replicating vessel into space towards a possible target world, even if it used something like Sonny White’s Warp Drive, it would take a good bit of time to get there. Rather than wasting its idle time, it could spend its days in the black creating its own offspring which, when ready, could launch itself towards another prospective world.
Supposing the probe found a habitable world, with enough of the right raw materials – why couldn’t it start the colonization for us? Imagine showing up at your new home after a long hypersleep to find your house is already move in ready, with all of the comforts of Earth already provided for you by the Cylons who have been living on Earth 2 for the past decade waiting for you to arrive. It’s an idea that has been touched on many times in media. While it’s usually portrayed as malevolent, with the proper programming, who knows how useful this concept would be in saving mankind, even if it lacks the drama of Matthew McConaughey and Catwoman searching distant worlds.
5. Entering Orbit Isn’t Like Dusting Crops, Boy…It’s Really Easier (If You Know Your Math)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that flying is “…learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” The most difficult aspect of Interstellar‘s game is just that: avoiding crashing into that large celestial body you’re trying to orbit. One would think that this difficulty would translate on the screen, as it seems obvious that the crew of the Endurance will have to explore several planets, but it might be one of the simpler aspects of our hero’s travels according to our rocket scientist.
It turns out that the dangers of entering orbit are easily mitigated with a little old-fashioned algebra. It’s apparently simple to calculate how to enter the orbit of planets in our solar system. Centuries of study have given us all of the information we need to “easily” calculate how to guide a ship into orbit. These factors include the diameter of the planet, what the planet is comprised of, and what kind of gravitational field it has.
But what about all of the planets we don’t know about? The whole point of this mission is to explore strange new worlds, not worlds we know about. With enough information which could likely be gathered easily by the Endurance‘s scientific equipment, it would be pretty straightforward to make a close-enough guess that would get you into a rough orbit, and with a few well timed burns of the engine, you could make that into a stable orbit.
While the algebra involved would likely make my head pop like that dude in Scanners, it’s likely that NASA’s best pilot could calculate these orbit trajectories in his sleep. Now if I could only get him to take my college math entrance exams for me.
6. And Ripley Was Worried About Missing One Birthday
The story in Interstellar is essentially a race against time. The crew of the Endurance is going to have to travel further and faster in hopes of not only finding a world, but setting it up for the evacuation of humanity. As they mention in the trailer, the trick is going to be accomplishing their mission while there are still people left to save.
According to Einstein, the closer you get to the speed of light, the slower time effects you. While the methods of acceleration in space mentioned before won’t get you anywhere close to light speed, there’s another method the game uses to propel you forward: The old Star Trek Slingshot technique.
One of the game’s missions involves using the gravity of a black hole to boost your ship’s speed. The level is simple; try to stay as close to a guideline while avoiding wayward asteroids. Get too far off course and you’re sent out into deep space, or you get to join Hans Reinhardt in the black hole. The closer you get to the black hole, the faster you travel, and with the speeds a black hole could be capable of generating, you could theoretically approach ludicrous speed. This could be particularly bad if you’re planning on getting back to Earth in time for your daughter’s 13th birthday.
A pair of clocks in the game keep track of both the time you’ve spent on a mission and how much time has passed on Earth. On a particularly bad play through, my starship crept too close to the event horizon. While the mission only took around two minutes to complete, by the time I was finished, Earth’s clock had moved forward thirty-four years. Humanity can do better than to choose me as their savior’s pilot; they’d likely go extinct waiting for my fashionably late ass to come home.
Previously By Jason Helton