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Kerbal Space Program exploit creates a new kind of space race

What keeps many players coming back to Kerbal Space Program is the complexity of the game. The space program simulator has an incredible physics model, one that lets you travel a solar system, dock in orbit, and create multi-staged rockets that can kill their pilots in incredibly authentic ways.

But KSP has a few holes in its systems as well, and sometimes that's where the fun lives.

One of those holes includes a fairly serious hazard of space travel, namely atmospheric physics as they apply to re-entry. When real spacecraft return to our Earth they have to be very careful to approach at the correct angle and the proper speed. If they don't they'll burn up. But in KSP there are no such limitations.

The lack of a proper atmospheric re-entry model has enabled the latest KSP challenge — speedruns to the edge of space.

Prolific KSP YouTuber Scott Manley issued a challenge on Sept. 6; get from the ground to the edge of space and back as fast as possible. The minimum successful time? Three minutes.

Three minutes to travel 70,000 meters, or 229,659 feet... twice. Here's his video.

Submissions began to trickle in over the weekend. One video, from YouTuber Zisteau, relies on two enormous concentric rings of engines for the outbound flight. The rich nougaty center of his craft is another set of engines pointed in the opposite direction.

At the 2:00 mark, about 131,000 feet off the ground, Zisteau lights that final, center stage. During the fastest part of his trip he is effectively throwing on the brakes and doing a U-turn. It takes him another 98,000 feet to slow down.

He touches space briefly, barely enough time for his Kerbal pilot to yelp, "Mother!" and begins to go straight back toward the launch pad under power. He strikes the plane where the atmosphere should be at a right angle with engines blazing, an impact that should have turned the ship, and its pilot, into millions of fiery pieces instantaneously.

Zisteau then sticks the landing, launching his parachute less than 300 feet above the ground like a HALO jumper.

Total elapsed time: 2:35.

It's pretty impressive, and also completely impossible if there had been an atmosphere to contend with.

Scott Manley tells the folks working on KSP that he should have a compilation of some of the more spectacular failed attempts at his three-minute challenge on his YouTube channel soon.

The folks at KSP also told Polygon that modeling the atmosphere during re-entry is something they are considering for the future, but they can't make any promises.

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