The Science of Dead Space: Tools of Destruction
In Part 1 of The Science of Dead Space, we looked at the concept of mining planets and asteroids, comparing Dead Space’s vision of the future with reality. This time we’ll talk about blowing stuff up and saving the world.
Asteroid Defence Cannon
Everybody loves firing good ol’ fashioned cannons. According to Dead Space, futuristic space folk in the 25th century are carrying on the fine tradition of ship-mounted cannons in the depths of the cosmos. Far from using gunpowder, these cannons use Mass Driver technology. In the game, they are used as a defence system against incoming asteroids, blasting them apart to avert the danger. How realistic is this? Are such cannons really feasible? Would it be a good idea to use one to defend against an incoming asteroid?
Mass Driver technology is just a super-advanced catapult of science. Rather than elastic, the object is slung forwards by an enormously powerful electromagnetic field. They are quickly becoming a ubiquitous element of sci-fi games; Halo has them, Killzone had them. Most importantly, though, we have them in real life!
Mass Driver weapon technology has been in development for decades. The most common form of this advanced tech is known as the ‘Railgun’. This futuristic weapon has made the amazing journey from science fiction to science fact; the US Army currently possesses a ship-mounted 32 megajoule Railgun capable of hitting a target from 220 miles away, projectiles moving so quickly that there is virtually no warning for the enemy. So this element of the game is pretty well grounded in reality, but would it be a good idea to use such a weapon to blow up an incoming dangerous asteroid?
Saving the World
Would we use one of our Railguns to save us in the event of what is known among scientists as a ‘Bruce-Willis-level’ threat? Not likely. Rather than send Bruce Willis from Armageddon to an asteroid, why not send Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen to do some exterior design?
Have I gone mad? Probably. Believe it or not, one of NASA’s most elegant solutions to an incoming meteoric threat would be to simply paint the object half black and half white. This is no mere celestial tribute to ‘ebony and ivory’, this is a move on the scientific chessboard that could mean checkmate for an evil asteroid. A normal asteroid radiates heat predictably as it tumbles through space. However, if you were to paint an asteroid half black and half white, it would begin to radiate heat unevenly. This would give asteroid a slight push on one side, slowly altering its trajectory. Although, the movie ‘Armageddon’ would have sucked if Llewelyn-Bowen had been the star. Well- it sucked anyway. We digress.
The common theme in most of NASA’s asteroid avoidance plans is to alter the asteroid’s trajectory so that it misses us, rather than to ‘blow it up’. Blowing asteroids up is generally not a good idea. Why? What would you rather, I drop a one tonne boulder on you, or drop one tonne of gravel on you? Doesn’t matter- you’d be dead either way. At least you can try to dodge one boulder. Fragmenting an incoming asteroid would quite simply be a disastrous idea. Sorry, Bruce.
What would you rather, I drop a one tonne boulder on you, or drop one tonne of gravel on you? Doesn’t matter- you’d be dead either way.
There are strategies in which nuclear explosions are considered necessary; one such strategy is known as Nuclear Pulse Adjustment. Again, the idea of this tactic is to alter the trajectory of the offending space-rock so that it misses the Earth. If you detonate a series of nuclear warheads near the asteroid, it will retain some of the force of the explosion which, over time, will give the rock a ‘nudge’. In reality a procedure like this would be carried out over a number of years.
One element of the Dead Space universe that is absolutely real is the idea of a ‘Plasma Cutter’. Plasma is one of those buzz-words which conjures up all sorts of sci-fi images of laser guns and light-sabres. In reality plasma is a very real, very mundane state of matter. It is a form of gas whose particles have become ionized and can be directed using magnetic fields. Can we direct plasma and use it to cut things like the Dead Space weapon can? Absolutely. Plasma Cutters are used routinely in modern industry to cut heavy metals. The only thing we don’t use them for is slaying Necromorphs. Yet.
One day soon plasma may also form the basis of propulsion for a new generation of spacecraft. Some of the world’s brightest minds are currently working on a prototype engine known as VASIMR – the Variable Specific Impulse Megnetoplasma Rocket. In a similar way to a plasma torch, VASIMR uses electromagnetic fields to create directed jets of high-speed plasma, causing a high thrust-to-fuel ration. Some of the technology required to do this is still over the horizon of human ability, but that is a horizon which is constantly moving toward us.
So what have we learned? Firstly, don’t go cracking planets. Secondly, hire an interior decorator to deal with your asteroid problems. Finally, if the Necromorphs do show up, head down to your local hardware store and grab a plasma torch!