The Science Behind No Man’s Sky
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, ESO

The Science Behind No Man’s Sky

24/08/2016Written by Jamie Laughton

Our producer at NSC Creative explores the science behind No Man's Sky in this guest blog post.

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mascot Telescope Right
Image Credit: No Man's Sky

This week we thought we would try something a little different on the National Space Centre blog. Today’s guest post is about the science behind a new video game, No Man’s Sky, which invites players to explore an entire galaxy and all its myriad stars, planets, and alien life-forms.

So let us begin on a galactic scale. The size of the galaxy in No Man’s Sky is genuinely mind boggling. A total 18 quintillion planets to be explored freely. Whilst the distance between these planets has been exaggeratedly compressed – they are much closer together than real stars and planets are – I feel this will be the first time, for many, that they have been able to envision the unimaginable scale of a galaxy.

The unnerving thing is of course that the 18×1018 planets in the No Man’s Sky galaxy falls considerably short of the 1024 estimated planets in our known universe. But it’s far, far more than the 1011 planets in our own modestly-sized Milky Way galaxy, making the No Man’s Sky galaxy bigger than even the biggest elliptical galaxy we’ve ever discovered, IC 1101.  

Planet Diversity

Planet Diversity
Image Credit: No Man's Sky

Once you land on one of 18 quintillion planets you will encounter a huge diversity of life. During interviews, the game’s chief architect, Sean Murray, has referenced the Drake Equation, which was proposed in 1961 by astronomer Frank Drake as way of estimating the number of alien civilisations in the universe. In No Man’s Sky, this equation provided the stimulus for the algorithm used to map life across all its planets. Murray considered the planets’ distance to their sun, their mass, and even their proximity to other planets when developing the types of life on these planets.

To date, we’ve discovered more than 2,000 real-life planets orbiting stars other than our own, including 21 planets that have the right size and distance from their star to sustain liquid water and possibly be inhabited with life. With more exoplanets being discovered every few months, the diversity of No Man’s Sky suddenly doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Alien Chemistry

Alien Chemistry
Image Credit: No Man's Sky

The chemical composition of any given planet’s atmosphere also has a huge effect on the types of life it sustains. Much like the planet Mercury in our own Solar System, some planets within the game have huge extremes in temperature between their days and nights (Mercury ranges between 430oC in the day and -170oC at night), and some planets have days that last for weeks on end (Mercury’s day lasts for 58.6 Earth days).

A key part of No Man’s Sky is its periodic table. Players have to reference this table regularly, experiment with various element combinations, and see what reactions and alloys occur. The table is an exaggerated variation of the real thing, but it does draw attention to the fundamentals of modern science and gets players thinking like chemists.  

Image Credit: No Man's Sky

I’ve always thought that the popularisation of science is one of the most salient byproducts of entertainment. Regardless of the medium, be it Star Wars or Star Trek, Carl Sagan or Brian Cox, inspiring the next generation to look to the stars and ask questions is one of the most noble and humbling pursuits of the creative arts.

The idea of young gamers, enthused by a video game, sitting in a classroom discussing chemical reactions, atmospheric pressures, the distances of interstellar travel, or simply considering what lies beyond the horizon of our Solar System is something worth saluting.

Kyle Jobson is a producer at NSC Creative, a part of the National Space Centre.

Editor’s note: The National Space Centre is not affiliated with nor offering endorsement of No Man’s Sky. But we do love dreaming of worlds beyond our Solar System.