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Science Check: Marvel’s Avengers September 21, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Editorials, Science Check.
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It’s been a long time since we played a game that inspired us to break out the lab coats and do a proper Science Check but we have been playing the multiplaform game Marvel’s Avengers all month and I must say that I have come across a scene that shook my plausible belief in this game about a team of super powered individuals. What happened? Well, read on and find out.

Just be aware there will be SPOILERS for a great moment in Avengers and if you haven’t played the game’s main story yet I recommend completing the single-player campaign before finishing this article. With that out of the way let’s get started with our article.

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.

During a major set piece of Marvel’s Avengers, the titular heroes need to do an investigation of an illegal laboratory located in Earth’s orbit. However, getting into space, even for The Avengers, is not easy. A S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier can fly but not into space. Helicarriers use jet turbines to stay aloft, which redirect air pressure in the earth’s atmosphere for thrust. No air, no thrust. They also couldn’t call up any international space agencys due to the dubious legal gray area the team was operating in at the time. That meant a rocket or shuttle launch was also out of the question. So the solution for getting into space meant Tony Stark would need to build an Iron Man suit capable of orbital insertion. That’s what we are going to be talking about today.

Building a space launching Iron Man suit wasn’t a bad idea since it was something Tony had been thinking about for years but could never accomplish up to that point. Tony mentioned that he had no issue with constructing an Iron Man suit capable of operating in space, his problem was getting the suit to launch into space. Essentially, with the game’s current technology, a power unit capable of getting Iron Man into orbit would either weigh too much or be too underpowered to fit in the suit. Getting into space requires power, and building a power source capable of orbital insertion (get used to that phrase we are going to be using it a lot) was difficult. In the event the suit was too heavy or too underpowered would cause it to flame out during launch. Tony’s had similar issues minimizing the size of certain Iron Man control systems throughout his comic series, with my favorite solution coming in the Extremis plotline, so this kind of issue is not unheard of.

So how does Iron Man fix his power problem? Tony’s solution was to use some of Hank Pym’s Pym Particles (yes the same ones Ant Man uses to get really small or really big) to miniaturize his biggest power control systems small enough to fit into his prototype suit. That brings us to this scene:

Okay, you saw it. But is it possible? I admit having played this scene and immediately thinking to myself, “This video game about a heavily radiated genius, a WWII super soldier, a man wearing a powered suit of armor, a super spy, a Norse God, and a girl with the ability to morph the size and shape of her limbs may not be very realistic.”

Let’s break down every single component of that launch, shall we? First off, can he really generate enough power to get him into orbit with just his modified power systems? We also see him going pretty fast while wearing little more than a skintight suit of metal armor to protect him from the forces required for orbital insertion, would a human body survive that? Finally, we see Iron Man launch during a lightning storm, could that be considered hazardous? Well, I’ve looked at all of these concerns and right now we are going to find out for sure if this scene could really work!

Tony Stark powers his Iron Man suit with something called an Arc Reactor. As you may remember from the very first Iron Man film, Tony was able to build a miniature reactor while in captivity to serve two purposes. First, to power a surgically implanted electromagnet that kept metallic shrapnel from entering his heart, and second to power the heavily-armed suit of armor that would help him escape. The first arc reactor he constructed in a cave with scraps was capable of “3 gigajoules per second” and while he never states the power output of later models (I’ve heard numbers high as 15) they clearly exceed the capability of the original model.

I would like to say that I know for a fact that you can or can’t get into space with just an arc reactor…but I don’t. We use rockets fueled by propellants such as hydrogen and oxygen to get into orbit. They require enormous fuel tanks and expend almost all of their energy in a matter of minutes. The Iron Man suit flies by using what is called “repulsor technology” which converts energy from a power source (like an arc reactor) directly into lift. That’s how Iron Man is able to fly without having to lug around an enormous fuel tank on his back. Sadly, we don’t have repulsor technology in our world so I can’t tell you what this fictional technology is fully capable of. I wish I could tell you an exact power output required for a rocket to get into orbit, but none of the rocket scientists I know will currently take my calls. On the side note, the Iron Man space suit clearly looks like it is made from gold and titanium, so it shouldn’t have an icing problem.

Now let’s talk about how fast the suit is going. I may not be a rocket scientist but even I remember what I heard from Walt Disney Presents. Launching into orbit, regardless of the fact of if you’re doing it in a rocket or a suit of armor, requires you to exceed the natural acceleration of earth’s gravity of 9.8m/s. Any less and you would start falling back to earth immediately. I appreciated the fact that Crystal Dynamics left players the ability to view the gauge readings on the screen as Iron Man ascended so we had an idea about how fast he’s going. True to that acceleration demand, the Iron Man suit is depicted as always going faster and faster, increasing speed by a Mach a second maxing out at Mach 32. That would certainly be fast enough to get into orbit but it does open some new issues.

Iron Man does not make his historic space launch on the ground. He launches from atop a SHIELD Helicarrier while it is aloft, which would in theory save his suit a little bit of power. Sadly I do not have insider specifications of what kind of max altitude a fictional airship from the Marvel comics has. Since we aren’t sure just how high an altitude the Helicarrier is at when Tony launches, we are going to assume it can reach at least the same altitude as a modern commercial jet. If the airship is lifted by four massive Jet Engines it can fly at an altitude of at least 12-15KM. (UPDATE: There’s disagreement here. Iron Man VR lists cruising altitude of a conventional SHIELD Helicarrier as 30KM. Meanwhile, Nick Fury mentions in the 2012 Avengers film their Helicarrier was at 30,000FT) If AIM’s space lab is at the same orbit as the International Space Station, that would put it at an altitude of 408KM. That means even while launching from an elevated position, the Iron Man suit still needs to travel nearly 400KM while constantly accelerating to reach its destination. The gauges we see in the game put the station at around 300KM away at launch so it is possible either the Helicarrier can be at an altitude of around 100KM or the facility was in a lower orbit than the ISS is at. Either way it gets a pass.

Also remember Tony is traveling through a lightning storm during his flight. While the player has the ability to dodge the storm, he does endure a few bolts on the way up. Honestly, I can’t imagine he has much to worry in that case as long as the Iron Man suit is insulated. About a decade ago I was actually on a plane that flew through a lightning storm and we came out perfectly fine. In fact, the crew of Apollo 12 was struck by lightning twice during their launch from Cape Kennedy, and thanks to Al Bean’s quick thinking (with help from mission control) were able to reach orbit by resetting one of their more obscure console switches. I could easily believe the Iron Man suit is insulated and is controlled by a crash-proof computer, which should provide some protection against getting struck by lightning. I imagine as long as the bolt didn’t damage the suit’s structural integrity, Tony would be just fine. This also gets a pass.

However, there is something Tony may not be able to survive, and that is the need for speed. His suit topped out at a speed of Mach 32 as it entered orbit. Could Tony survive going Mach 32? Well, as far as we can tell, this version of Tony Stark is not using the Extremis suit, and he still has his Arc Reactor surgically installed in his chest so I am arguing for this article that the game’s version of Tony Stark is 100% human. The fact he likely also has a heart condition would likely disqualify him from being an astronaut, but so would being over six feet tall. Speed and acceleration by itself will not severely injure a human, but extreme G-forces will. As we saw Tony’s suit climb in speed, we also saw his body’s G-Force on a separate part of the display. That gage reporter a force at around 3.5G the entire trip. This is a pretty comparable force to what astronauts receive when they enter orbit and they have endured it with no long-term effects. Tony likely also works out and eats regularly so, as long as his diet isn’t entirely hot dogs he should receive a pass here.

My technical advisor also followed up with me about questions of just how Iron Man planned to return to Earth. They argued it was harder for him to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere than it was for him to get into space. While this may be a spoiler, Tony’s plan was always to steal one of the station’s escape capsules and use that to return to Earth. The escape plan doesn’t go off entirely without a hitch, but this satisfied by advisor’s curiosity.

I have to admit everything about this launch is coming up as very possible, with the only exception being the fictional Iron Man technology being a wild card. If we would assume a man could build a suit of armor capable of flight powered by a miniature reactor in his chest, anything is possible. Anyone willing to give me 1.4 billion USD to try it for myself?

Marvel’s Avengers is out now on PC, Stadia, PS4 and Xbox One. It is coming to Xbox Series X/S and PS5.

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