I have been blessed to live in this time where human beings are just now beginning to explore space. I have an insatiable curiosity about such things and I have marvelled at the photos and data that have streamed back from remote areas of the solar system.
However, from a careful analysis of our rate of technological progress, I have come to the conclusion that we are unlikely to venture beyond the confines of our own planetary system in my lifetime. While this might not be of much concern to most people, this maddening fact does indeed cause me to lose sleep at night. I suppose I could wait around and hope that some alien civilization beams me the plans to build an interstellar transporter. But instead, I have decided to take matters into my own hands.
Computers are wonderful tools for creating simulations. So I thought there might be a way I could simulate interstellar exploration. The biggest problem with such a simulator is that simulators are by their nature designed to simulate things that are known. Of course knowing what you will find kind of ruins the whole reason for exploring in the first place.
So, I knew that whatever simulator I developed needed to have enough variability that I could not predict the final product. Likewise, I should be able to run the simulator again and produce results very different from the previous run. Yet, the results must also be believable and based on as much hard science as possible.
I started off with an evaluation of the different types of stars and what kind of planetary system each type is likely to develop. Having just one good model to work from is a significant impediment. However, the recent rash of planet finding has shown that planetary systems are likely to come in a variety of configurations. I tried to establish some basic rules for orbital configurations, but of course, always leaving room for the occasional exception.
The next step was establishing what types of planets might be found around these stars. Once again, I only have a few good samples to work from. Our planets seem to neatly fit within three categories: rock, ice, and gas. I suspect these are fairly typical worlds, but probably fall within a much larger spectrum. Instead of simply choosing a planetary "class", I decided to generate the planets attributes based on several environmental factors such as orbital position, temperature, available materials, age, etc... and just see how the planets come together. At all times I tried to ensure that the planets in our own solar system fell within the range of possible results.
The final step of this process - and perhaps the most difficult - is to establish surface features that might result from planetary characteristics derived in the previous step. To do this, I created a collection of algorithms for generating crators, canyons, mountains, volcanos, plains, and other surface variations and tried to apply them in a way that might reflect the planets geological history. The atmosphere is similarly generated by a collection of algorithms applied in such a way as I hope might accurately represent weather on the generated planet.
To what end, one may well ask. Well, I simply hope to capture the wonder and beauty of interstellar exploration. Something that, alas, none of us alive today will ever get to experience.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the images. This is still very much a work in progress, so I hope to provide more images soon.
One interesting side effect of the algorithms I employ to generate these planets is that they are derived from a pseudo random number generator - meaning that all the random values always follow the exact same sequence from a single seed value. Therefore, each planet can be stored as one four byte integer. Likewise, the planetary system that assigns the seeds to each planet is also derived from a single seed. Likewise the galaxy that assigns the seed to each planetary system can also be derived from a single seed. And so on. So, I can create an entire universe from a single four byte integer - giving me 4.5 billion possible universes. Kind of a big bang all over again - only this time it was me.