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Science Check: Mass Effect February 20, 2012

Posted by Maniac in Editorials, Science Check.
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After five years I’ve dusted off my copy of the Mass Effect Limited Collector’s Edition and decided to finish it. Previously, I had only gotten as far as the end of the first act, my intention now was to restart the game and play every bit of it I could. As I was playing the game, it became quite clear that the game was based in a very plausible reality when it came to science fiction, making it a perfect candidate for a Science Check.

Not familiar with the Mass Effect series? Let me introduce it to you in the way that it was originally introduced to me, its E3 2006 video.

I know what you’re thinking, didn’t Dr. Michio Kaku already talk about this game in a video series for GameTrailers? Well yes, he did. But he focused on specific technology in Mass Effect 2 like invisibility and force fields, so I’m not going to discuss what he’s already covered. Instead, I’m going to focus on the most important technology in the Mass Effect universe, space travel, and talk about how well the game’s presentation of how starships can travel through space holds up under scientific scrutiny.

Sometimes, you’re forced to make some severe leaps of logic as to just how plausible a video game’s grounded reality can be. Some things we’re willing to take for granted, like enemies will simply just carry health and ammunition supplies with them at all times, and you will be immediately able to make use of them.

But then sometimes there will be moments in gaming which skirt the bounds of reality and you are forced to ask yourself…COULD THAT REALLY HAPPEN? Fortunately for me, I happen to have a bunch of friends on speed dial with science backgrounds and when I ask them questions, they have no problem filling me in on just what reality would do in these situations.

So this is Science Check, where I take a look at the leaps and bounds of scientific logic that games have made over the years and check if it would indeed work, or if you tried doing it in the real world, you’d be totally screwed.

As you saw in the video, you have control of your own starship called the Normandy, which at the time of the beginning of the game is the newest and most advanced starship in the Alliance Fleet. Its revolutionary stealth drive allows it to travel through space virtually undetected by other starships.

It’s clear that Bioware had access to a scientific advisor when developing this game because after going through a lot of the game’s Journals and Codex files you can read intricate details about how all the technology in the Mass Effect games work, and all of it is based upon our most recent understandings of how the universe works. I haven’t seen a fictional medium this up to date with its real-world scientific information since Star Trek.

To explain how a starship can mask its engine signature I must start off by breaking some sad news. I hate to say this, but the movie Predator 2 lied to you. If you haven’t seen Predator 2, let me give you a little backstory. A government agent, played by Gary Busey, wanted to capture an alien hunter who was having a grand old-time in Los Angeles. With knowledge gained from Arnold in the first movie, the government deduced that the predators could only see in an infrared spectrum of light (it could only see based on body heat). When Busey tried to capture the predator with his team, he had them all wearing bodysuits which completely masked their heat signature with the hope it would block the predator’s infrared vision. However, it turns out that the predator can also see in other light spectrums such as ultraviolet, and detects the team coming for him by the beams of their flashlights.

In real life, if you were to wear a suit that rendered your body heat undetectable, you would die (and I’m not talking about from a predator attack). Heat cannot simply be masked or destroyed, only transferred. You can’t completely mask the body heat of a human being, as it would dangerously contain that heat, and without a way to vent it the suit would continue to build up heat until whoever was wearing it overheated and possibly died. Even if the suits contained some sort of air conditioner, the heat would still need to be removed from it through some sort of airborne exhaust system (which would have been visible to the predator) or a series of tubes (which they did not have). Your refrigerator, for example, doesn’t just cool your food by adding cold, it cools itself by removing the heat inside the box and dissipating it out the back. Even an air conditioner cannot cool the temperature of a room without first removing the hot air from it.

The Normandy’s engines actually have a pretty ingenious solution to the problem of what to do with its heat output. Ships in the future are tracked by the heat trail left by their engines. In order to move through space undetected the Normandy masks its heat trail by storing the heat generated by the engines in massive heat sinks, instead of releasing it as exhaust. The ship does not bend light around itself like a Star Trek cloaking device would, so it would certainly be visible by looking out of the window of another space ship in close proximity, but it would be next to impossible to track its trail with typical sensors, and with space being as big as it is, the chances of another ship in open space being close enough to the Normandy to be in visual proximity is quite slim. However, the ship cannot operate in stealth forever. Eventually the ship will have to vent the heat it is storing or it would risk catastrophic overheating.

In Mass Effect, in order for a starship to travel faster than light, a ship needs to pass through a mass accelerator, which are massive relays spread all throughout the galaxy by a long-lost alien race. By traveling through one, the ship gains speed as the accelerator, um, accelerates it. As the ship leaves the accelerator it will be travelling faster than light towards its destination. When it comes to light speed travel, scientific workarounds must be written because Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (and the reason why so many say faster than light travel is impossible) says the faster an object goes as it reaches the speed of light, the more mass it gains. Pesky little problem, right? Mass Effect says that while traveling at light speed, the mass of the ship is reduced to zero. This gets it around the Law of Relativity similar to how a starship in Star Trek must slip into subspace in order to reach warp speed.

The mass accelerators that a spacecraft like the Normandy travels through, pushes the spacecraft to faster than light speeds, and releases it. This reminded me a lot like how a linear electric motor works. Since nothing is faster than an electrical impulse, a projectile can be moved along a series of magnets placed end to end. The accelerated object gains speed as it is being pushed from magnet to magnet. gaining great speed over a short period of time. With this system, the vehicle’s speed is limited only to your craft’s design. This kind of technology is also used in a rail gun, which uses the same concept to accelerate a projectile. In fact, the animation of the Normandy using a mass accelerator to travel faster than light looked very similar to how a rail gun accelerates a projectile out of a barrel.

The stealth drive is not supported during faster-than-light travel, the amount of heat generated by the engines during that procedure is so massive that no amount of containment would be enough to mask the ship’s engine trail. So any ships tracking it would be able to know if they had entered a star system, and if they had left, but not where they were while they were in there.

I also wanted to talk about the other little vehicle included in the Normandy’s cargo hold, which you can take when cruising around uncharted planets and asteroids, called the M-35 Mako. The Mako is a fully enclosed six-wheel-drive vehicle designed to hold three occupants and allow safe travel over great distances of difficult terrain in hazardous atmospheres. It even has its own life support systems and can withstand high pressure or extreme temperature environments which could be fatal to a person if exposed for very long.

The Mako actually has a real world counterpart. NASA has constructed a similar vehicle with the intention to send it on a manned trip to Mars or the moon. Called the Lunar Electric Rover, or LER for short, this vehicle is just plain awesome. Last time I checked, astronauts were testing it on Earth under simulated Martian terrain conditions. The vehicle has a very similar redundant wheel configuration to the Mako, and also has high tork to help it travel over rocky uneven terrain without getting stuck. It is entirely electric with power from solar panels on its exterior. If you’re curious I believe its top speed is about fifteen km/hr. So not only was the design of the Mako plausible, a real world analog to it actually exists!

Okay, I just spent a few paragraphs drawing from what scientists have been debating for half a century. Would it work in reality? Right now, there’s just no way to know, while Mass Effect clearly had its scientific principles grounded in the most recent information available, the human race has not used this information yet to build a starship capable of traveling faster than light, and because of that I can’t put a verdict on it. Okay NASA, I’ve talked about it, now build it. If this method works, it will get a pass from me.

Mass Effect 3 is coming March 6th, 2012 to Xbox 360, PC and PS3.

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