“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
On January 13, 2019, a group of nearly 12,000 explorers in Elite Dangerous embarked upon an 18-week voyage to the other end of the galaxy in an expedition known as Distant Worlds 2. It is the largest and most ambitious since the launch of the game.
Elite Dangerous, released by Frontier Developments in 2014, is an open-world space MMORPG set nearly 1,300 years in the future. Players take their place as a commander of the Pilots Federation and set out to make something of themselves in a cold, empty galaxy. As in all RPGs, you start with scraps: a tiny bank account and a cheap, barely adequate starship. What will you become? Perhaps a trucker, running cargo between systems, or a combat pilot, destroying pirates and cashing in bounties.
Or perhaps, like Elite’s most dedicated players, you’ll chose to leave humanity behind and head out into the black (I’ll tell ’em you ain’t comin’ back). Elite’s most impressive feature, by far, is its size—it’s set in a 1:1 scale replica of the Milky Way Galaxy. There are 400 billion star systems, each one randomly generated by the Stellar Forge, which simulates the accretion and distribution of gases over eons to create realistic planets. As if that weren’t enough, players can land on any nonatmospheric planet and discover stunning views, geological anomalies such as geysers and magma, and even strange signs of alien life. When you arrive home, you can sell the data on your discoveries for a not-insignificant amount of money, and if you are the first to discover a celestial object, you’ll get your name attached to it under “First Discovered By” for all to see.
But exploration is not for the faint of heart (or short on time). The galaxy is over 100,000 light-years wide, and only the best ships are capable of jumping more than 50 light-years at a time. Humanity only occupies a tiny fragment of the galaxy—a roughly spherical region 500 light-years wide, fondly known as “the Bubble.” In this region and in this region only, you can refuel, repair, and outfit your ship. To travel long distances outside the Bubble, you need to skim fuel from stars, and any damage you sustain is permanent. A few too many hard landings or close encounters with a star, and all your hard work will be lost as you find yourself back in the last station you docked at.
The Distant Worlds 2 expedition has been a long time coming. On December 16, 3300—that is, release day, 2014—a player known as Erimus Kamzel set out from the very edge of human-inhabited space in a long-range exploration vessel. On January 18, five weeks later, he reached his destination: System CEECKIA ZQ-L C24-0, over 65,000 light-years from Earth. To this day, it remains one of the farthest reachable systems in the galaxy and has since been officially renamed by the developers to Beagle Point in honor of the explorer’s ship, the DSS Beagle.
In 2016 (game year 3302), the original Distant Worlds expedition took place. Its goal was comparatively simple: a fleet of roughly 1,100 ships would depart from the Pallaeni system and attempt to repeat Erimus Kamzel’s route, following a series of waypoints across the galaxy. Once there, the explorers would be free to make their way home however they liked—there was no return plan. The expedition was a resounding success, but space is dangerous. Fewer than 600 of the original 1,100 confirmed that they had arrived safely at Beagle Point.
Distant Worlds 2 is far more ambitious. Planning for the event began over a year ago, in late 2017. Registration opened on January 28, 2018, and within two weeks total registrations surpassed those of the first expedition, which was retroactively dubbed Distant Worlds 3302. By the launch date, the expedition boasted nearly 12,000, over ten times as many. There were so many players gathering together that the game’s servers actually went down for several hours after departure.
This expedition promises far more than the first. This time, the organizers have planned a full role-playing experience. Along the way, the fleet will stop at Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy; one of the expedition’s side goals is the construction of an orbiting “research station” around the black hole itself. Many players have joined with cargo ships, collectively hauling tens of thousands of tons of metal and building materials. This feat is, of course, entirely unnecessary. Stations are a permanent part of the game’s world. Though the developers do create new stations as a response to community projects like this, there is no way in-game for players to actually build one themselves—the materials serve no purpose whatsoever. This is just one of the many fascinating ways that players have chosen to role-play within the world of the game.
Upon reaching the first waypoint, there will be a two-week stop as the fleet focus temporarily shifts away from exploration to a different area of the game: mining. At the end of 2018, Frontier Developments released a massive update to Elite Dangerous that, among many other things, took the game’s bare-bones mining gameplay—which involved shooting “mining lasers” at asteroids until little chunks broke off, and literally nothing else—and fleshed it out into a full experience. Players now have an expanded toolkit for locating and exploiting the resources found in gas giant rings and can even engage in “deep-core mining,” using timed explosives to break open asteroids and access the valuable minerals inside. I recently got a virtual reality headset, and believe me, cracking asteroids in VR is quite possibly the single coolest thing I have ever seen.
On top of the mining, exploration, and hauling opportunities, the expedition provides players with the chance to conduct real science in a virtual environment. Many aspects of the Stellar Forge, the previously mentioned system the game uses to realistically generate systems, are still unknown to the community. We know that the Stellar Forge uses metallicity (the amount and type of metal in a star) as a variable, but there’s no way to see metallicity in-game. By analyzing large numbers of systems and focusing on the metal content of planets, which is visible, the Trans-Galactic Metallicity Survey hopes to find a statistically significant correlation between the metallicity of star and its planetary configuration. This data can then be used to determine high-metallicity regions of the galaxy, which explorers can use to gather valuable materials to repair and enhance their starships.
If at this point you’re kicking yourself for not hearing about this sooner, don’t despair! There’s still time. Though the expedition has already departed, it moves at a fairly leisurely pace. The fleet is still in the Omega Nebula, only a few hours’ travel from the Bubble. The next waypoint will be announced on Sunday, January 27, and the fleet will depart shortly after. If you’re a longtime player, you probably won’t find it too hard to play catch-up.
If you aren’t familiar with the game but are now interested, it’s unfortunately far too late to join the fleet on your own. There simply isn’t enough time to start from scratch, learn the game, make money, buy a proper ship, and catch up to the fleet (unless you have way too much spare time). But even for you, there’s still a way to participate. The game has a system called Multicrew that allows players from anywhere in the galaxy to temporarily board another player’s ship, provided they have an extra seat or two. Using this feature, many explorers have signed on to the expedition as tour guides, offering a free seat to anyone who wants to see the wonders of the galaxy for themselves without the commitment or risk of leaving the Bubble.
Elite Dangerous is $29.99 on Steam, and the Horizons DLC (allowing planetary landings) is an additional $29.99. It is available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The Horizons DLC is not available for Apple operating systems. To any who read this and wish they’d heard of it earlier: I’ve got an extra seat. Welcome aboard.