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Pluto will get a facelift in Elite: Dangerous, but not for a while

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Pilots in Elite: Dangerous won't immediately see a Pluto that looks like the closeups NASA released to wide fanfare this week, but as the game develops to offer closer flybys or landings, and as developers get more data from the mission to the distant world, they will.

In Elite: Dangerous' weekly update, the question of Pluto and its moon, Charon, was brought up. "You'll notice Pluto and Charon look a little different in Elite: Dangerous," the designers noted. Indeed, before this week the best image of the world was a blurry composite.

"We're pleased by how closely our simulation has matched the 'smooth' heart-shaped area on Pluto," Frontier Developments noted (the composites pointed to a significant, lighter-shaded patch, if not the heart itself.) Frontier went on to say that Elite: Dangerous is set in 3001, which would mean "five more orbits and five more heating/cooling cycles" for Pluto, so who knows, that smooth patch might cover the world by then.

But back to the here and now, the reason Frontier isn't simply re-rendering the planet's appearance is because of how each world is built. "All our planets are built using a sophisticated simulation so that one day you can get close to them. Really close," assistant Art Bottone says.

"Right now every planet can only be observed from afar, but Elite: Dangerous is designed for the future," he added, "and by sticking to the simulation and constantly improving it to make it as real as possible, we can be sure the canyons and mountains you see from space will accurately be reflected when you skim close to the surface, or even land upon it."

Frontier is waiting for "the necessary data" to help improve their simulation "because flying along that four-mile deep canyon on Charon looks irresistible." So, short-term answer on a makeover is no; long-term is a yes.

Elsewhere in the update, Frontier said that the next major update for the game's Windows PC and Mac edition "will be released within as short a window as possible after the Xbox release." Elite: Dangerous is offered on Xbox One through the console's newly announced Game Preview program for under-construction works. "We're looking at weeks, rather than months as has been speculated," Frontier added.