The Science Behind the Look

David Wessman

Impeller Staff
Staff member

Why Does Everything Look So Clean and New?

"Why do the ships and other objects in the game appear so clean? Shouldn't they be more dirty and worn-looking?"

These are great questions, and we'd like to offer a detailed answer based on our understanding of the science involved. A lot of science fiction portrays a future that looks grimy and "lived in" … even the spaceships. For many people this has come to seem more realistic than a pristine environment where everything looks clean and new. But is it actually realistic?

To answer that question we need to consider the nature of the physical environment of deep space, and the changes in technology we can confidently predict. There are several advancements in smart materials (especially in self-healing materials), 3D printing, robotics and other areas that would make it possible for things to always appear clean (if not brand new).

Physical Environment

On the environmental side, there simply isn’t that much debris out there for things to get dirty from. Certainly, there’s plenty of dust on airless planets, asteroids and moons but not in interplanetary space. Moreover, what does exist is so widely spaced apart that it’s very unlikely that you would run into anything. Space is largely an empty void, and gets emptier as you move away from major bodies.

The pod bay aboard the Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Granted, there are a some places that are substantially more crowded. Artificial debris could be a concern in orbits with lots of spaceships, where paint flakes and surface sheddings can accumulate. The issue would be even worse at former battle sites, where lots of debris may have been created, posing risks to anything that transits through later if the wreckage is not removed. As for natural debris, there are several comets and moons that eject material straight into the surrounding void, whether through surface vaporization or volcanism. Entering a low orbit or transiting near them risks running into these ejecta.

The Falcon’s lounge … Han Solo and Chewbacca clearly
don’t spend a lot of time cleaning up after themselves.

Our combat scenarios are all situated in the Saturn system, so you could experience this phenomenon in future missions. Enceladus, for example, is a cryogenically volcanic moon that spits ice and water vapor up to 500 kilometers away (that’s equal to the moon’s diameter).. Currently, you’d most likely encounter trouble in Saturn’s rings, which are chock full of miniature particles, beyond just the big clumps that they are known for. This also applies to the rings of the other gas giants as well.

The Empire appears to have some strict rules about keeping the hangar bays clean.

Now if you do manage to run into some of this debris, chances are that it won’t stick. Everything out there is moving at orbital velocity, and if its orbit doesn’t quite align with yours (which is almost always the case), it’ll impact the ship at several kilometers per second, most likely vaporizing and leaving behind a small crater. The crater itself may be surrounded by dust streaks ejected from the surface, depending on the material as well as precisely where the strike occurred and what that component is made of.

Micrometeor strike to the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s radiator.

Given what such cratering could do to ship skin integrity and armor, repairing this damage would be a priority during routine maintenance after every mission. This is a real world concern: in fact, NASA is so concerned about this for the International Space Station that they are developing self-healing materials that can fill in such holes on their own. Our starfighters may not use those specifically, but they do carry internal 3D printers, and so could do the job much more thoroughly.

Enterprise hangar bay with shuttles, and not much else.

Having said that, there are some orbital spaces where you’ll likely be moving in a similar orbit to the debris such that it could accumulate - the aforementioned crowded orbits, and the rings of Saturn - but that doesn’t mean the intact dust can’t be dangerous. Dust from airless bodies is incredibly coarse - without air or water erosion, there’s nothing to weather its edges - and this sharpness is harmful both for machine operation and human inhalation. The small particles can wind their way to the most unlikely places, where they can jam machine bearings, cut airways, lung tissue, and even individual cells.

Suffice to say, it’s best to clean it where possible.

Hangars and launch bays will be pretty clean, both unintentionally because the ships using them don’t go places that would bring dust in, and intentionally so as to maintain ship performance and crew health. If dust were allowed in it would be blown throughout crewed areas via the ship’s ventilation system, and could even damage the ventilation itself, so it’s crucial that it’s caught. NASA has always recognized this issue; the ball-point pen was invented since pencil shavings would cause shorts in the fan circuits and could potentially start a fire. This isn’t limited to spaceflight. Real world concerns regarding Foreign Object Damage (FOD) drive some very strict practices at modern day airbases and on aircraft carriers. These concerns are also reflected in the in-game design of ships, engines and other components.

Crew of an aircraft carrier conducting a Foreign Object Damage walk.

What about those dusty planets and moons? There’s no wind here to blow the dust around, so without something to kick it off, it will simply sit on the surface, unable to coat anything. Inert buildings and support structures can stay pretty clean, at least until the passage of time slowly craters them out. Now vehicles certainly qualify for kickoff, as do mining installations and robots, so these could dirty themselves quickly throughout operation, but probably not rockets. You see, while rockets can blow away dust, their plumes blow the dust away from themselves. What dust they do gather will be on the landing legs, or whatever was blown onto them from a nearby takeoff.

Future Materials and Manufacturing

The other thing to consider regarding our current aesthetic is what the ships and stations are made of - how they are manufactured, and how they are maintained and repaired when needed. This is where 3D printing and smart materials come back into play. Such printers can manipulate material on a microscopic level, which is necessary for the properties of some of these compounds. Because of this, there’s far less tolerance for roughness or imperfections coming off the shelf.

SpaceX Rocket Factory (showing early 21st century manufacturing methods).

BAE’s proposal for “growing” drones in vats - could be reality in the 2020s.

The primary source of damage is going to be combat, and you will see ships take damage during a battle. After the battle, surviving ships return to base where their internal printers have time and material feed to repair any damage. In addition, the base and players' personal hangars are equipped with larger fabricators that can produce any needed replacement parts. The result being that the next time you go into combat, your ship is fully restored and looks brand new - after all, it was fixed the same way it was made!

Each player’s starting sub-hangar is equipped with two fabricators
- one for missiles and other components, and a larger one for making the
entire spaceframe for a small ship like the Shrike as seen here.