The Science of Dead Space: Planet Cracking
For nearly four years now, EA’s Dead Space franchise has been the proud flagship of sci-fi horror games. From the outset the game’s developers, Visceral, have clearly put a lot of thought into the overall legitimacy of the game’s position within the sci-fi genre. The protagonist’s very identity is dripping with the sweet nectar of science fiction, being named after famed writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Both of those writers had a penchant for predictive writing; grounding their visions of the future in solid science and sociology to paint an elegantly relatable picture of what may be in our future. Placing the game amongst such revered contemporaries is a lofty ambition indeed, so just how big is Dead Space’s scientific endowment when measured with the cold hard ruler of reality?
One of the central plot points of the franchise is the idea of large-scale space mining operations – the first game taking place aboard a ‘planet-cracker’, and the second on the cracked ruins of what was once Saturn’s moon, Titan. The act of planet cracking seems to be an impressive feat of technological prowess; the Dead Space wiki says “it is known that a large chunk [of the planet] is broken off with powerful lasers, and then brought inside a ‘Planet Cracker’-class ship via gravity tethers where it is then stripped and its ore content is studied.” It’s like cracking your boiled egg and removing the top, only with an entire planet.
Technological prowess aside, there is a far more encompassing issue with the idea of planet ‘cracking’ and removing large chunks of mass from alien star systems. You see, any solar system is in reality a carefully choreographed dance of objects hurtling around a giant nuclear furnace at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Each one of those objects is held in balance by an intricate web of gravitational attraction to every other object in said solar system; remove or change an object and the entire web will change. So tampering significantly with the mass of a planet is no trifling matter – you could drastically change the overall dynamics of the solar system. What happens to the planet’s moon if the planet looses half its mass? It could go flying of into the solar system – a lunar missile of death hurtling toward an innocent target.
Each one of those objects is held in balance by an intricate web of gravitational attraction to every other object in said solar system; remove or change an object and the entire web will change.
Fortunately we are hundreds of years away from having the technological advancements to begin even thinking of mining other planets on a large scale. On the other hand, asteroid mining is something which is very likely to begin within the next few years. How will it compare to the planet-crackin’ laser blastin’ carnage we see in Dead Space? Actually, it’s way cooler in real life – let’s have a look at a few of the methods we will likely use to mine NEA’s (Near Earth Asteroids).
Self-replicating machines. That’s right (it’s time to panic), scientists are talking about creating self-replicating machines to send to asteroids. There they can have lots of little machine babies and plot the destruction of their fleshy human overlords! Ok, back to serious mode now. The idea here is to create one small space probe which has the ability to replicate itself using the materials available on the asteroid and technology analogous to that used in 3D printing. This would mean you only have to send one small craft which could then, over the course of years, reproduce in the thousands, creating an entire refinery on the asteroid ready for us to collect the fruits of their labour in one simple craft when the mining is done. Far from being science fiction, we’ve already made basic self replicating machines here on Earth.
Magnetic rakes. Some of the most valuable asteroids out there are made of metals and metallic ore. That’s right, huge chunks of gold and platinum floating through the emptiness of space, ready to be mined. For these rocks, you can put your drill-bit away; it has been theorized that these objects would be covered in valuable dust and pebbles – perfect for a powerful electromagnet to hover over the surface and harvest. This is potentially an advantageous mining technique as it circumvents the need for expensive and risky landing procedures.
How far away is this from becoming a reality? Well, Avatar man James Cameron has recently become a founding investor of a private company of like-minded billionaires whose intent is to start asteroid mining within the next 10-20 years. In the meantime we are learning more than ever about asteroids, as NASA missions to asteroids, Pluto and beyond continue to return amazing up-close images.
America’s human space program is drunkenly stumbling towards a manned mission to an asteroid within the next decade. Using the shiny new Orion spaceship (the shuttle replacement), a crew of four brave astronauts will become the first humans walk on the surface of an object outside of the Earth-Moon system. So while we may be hundreds of years away from full scale planet cracking, we are stood on the exciting verge of the beginning of space-mining. While Dead Space’s vision of this may be on the extreme end of the scale, it may indeed prove to be a journey we take sooner than you might expect!
Coming soon in Part 2: Giant magnetic super-cannons! Why you shouldn’t send Bruce Willis to save the world, you should really send Laurence Llewelyn Bowen.