Test next-generation space technology in the “Kerbal Space Program”

Most games lose relevance after a few years, but the indie rocket building game Kerbal Space Program is a little different. It’s a 10-year-old outsider of a game with a cult of programmers, engineers, astronaut candidates, and your typical secular explosion enthusiasts, and it has a unique and active community of bug-fixing modders. , adding new features, and generally keeping the game fresh for almost a decade.

In the game, you are the all-knowing director of a space program made up of little green men (and beloved little green woman Valentina Kerman – we see you pioneering) who you send to the sky in a spaceship of your own. design. It often feels like watching those old blurry videos of rockets being launched back down straight into an explosion of flaming schadenfreude: you feel a little scared, a little sadistic, and you really want to try again.

Art imitates life

One of the most prolific Kerbal modders is Chris Adderley, Nertea in the game, who is an engineer at the Canadian Space Company MDA per day, by designing ground-based systems that retrieve data from spacecraft. But in his spare time, Adderley takes the pilot’s seat himself. He started to play Kerbal Space Program shortly after its release, and in 2013 began building its first mod for the game – an aftermarket pack, including a xenon fuel tank and a magnetoplasmadynamic thruster (just try saying this three times faster ).

Since then, he has designed dozens of additional modules, including a Mark IV spaceplane and space station add-ons like centrifuges and inflatable habitats.

“I’m building things that I would love to see us as a species build in the future,” says Adderley.

Recently, Addlerley decided to take some of the most plausible theoretical rocket engine concepts from the distant future and bring them into the game. Notions in a simulated environment that can teach us how they might actually work, on a more practical level, in the future.

Adderley combed through dozens of scientific papers describing the theoretical blueprints of these ultra-advanced propulsion systems, looking for which ones were the most realistic.

“Everyone is trying to sell their project as the propulsion system of the future,” says Adderley. “You’ve got to kind of be thinking a little bit critically about what people are waving.”

He calculated the numbers, considered how much horsepower a specific engine would need, how to handle the heat produced, and how to harness the energy to propel the virtual rocket further. “It was super fun, which might be a super cheesy statement, but you know.”

In the end, he built 13 different engine concepts, including fusion engines, like The extentEpstein’s training is theorized to be fission engines and antimatter rockets.

While we don’t yet have the technology to implement these specific impulse demons, there is some real-world value in being able to simulate advanced engines in a low-stake environment. In fact, it’s such a good sandbox that engineers at SpaceX and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used Kerbal graphics in their presentations. In 2018, NASA released Open MCT, a telemetry data visualization software designed for the operation of spacecraft, to the public on Github. It is expensive and time consuming to test these systems on real spacecraft, so some participants ran their programs through Kerbal instead.

For Sumontro Sinha, an aerospace engineer and fusion researcher at the Propulsion Research Lab at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Kerbal is the go-to for testing new ideas and training new engineers.

“Instead of PowerPoint slides and equation pages, just build the ship and see how it works,” he says. “If it works in Kerbal then it has a good chance of working in real life. “

Donut Power

the spherical tokamak fusion engine is based on the fictional spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, without Dave the AI ​​killer. Adderley found the real science behind it in a NASA study, in which the lead author of the article, Craig Williams, claims that NASA has funded a number of projects focused on the development of advanced propulsion systems. Williams’ team designed an engine that uses the energy produced by a fusion reaction to generate thrust. Fusion occurs naturally inside stars like our sun, where light atoms are superheated to the point where their electrons and neutrons decoupling and the neutrons, normally repelling each other, merge and produce massive amounts of d ‘energy. One of the biggest challenges in producing this energy on Earth is that you need a way to confine the resulting plasma and harness its power.

One way to do this is by using a tokamak, a device that generates a donut-shaped magnetic field that holds the superheated plasma in place. In Williams’ prototype engine, this tokamak would be almost spherical, looking more like a donut hole. The produced exhaust would propel the vehicle to over 166,000 mph, taking passengers to Jupiter in just under 4 months. To put this in perspective, the Voyager space probe is pulling away from our solar system at 35,000 mph.

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