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The first planet around the A star in the Thor’s Eye system in Elite: Dangerous. Image: Commander Zer0axis

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What it’s like to map a galaxy in Elite: Dangerous

Real explorers making their mark on virtual worlds

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

My starship is perched along the rim of a crater on an airless moon some 55,000 light-years from home. Hanging in the sky on the other side of the canopy is a water world, its wispy white clouds revealing an endless sea.

This moon is just one of trillions like it in a spacefaring game called Elite: Dangerous, which puts players in the cockpit of a starship and sets them loose from a first-person perspective. But unlike the vast majority of those other moons, this one has a name. It’s called Luna’s Shadow.

Luna’s Shadow is an unremarkable hunk of rock floating in the void. But this particular patch of the void just happens to be a point in three-dimensional space exactly on the opposite side of the galaxy from our own moon. Here, inside Elite’s virtual simulacrum of our Milky Way, that makes the lonely water world on the horizon a shadow Earth.

What’s strange is the fact that Luna’s Shadow wasn’t placed here on purpose by Elite’s creators, the U.K.-based studio Frontier Developments. This entire system, including its bright white central star and its 10 other planets and moons, was procedurally generated. It was spit out by a mathematical rock tumbler called the Stellar Forge, a technology so uncanny that it has accurately predicted the location of real extrasolar planets. Once created, Luna’s Shadow was just left here for players to find.

An image from the GRIA DRYE NV-G C26-0 system in Elite: Dangerous, captured during Distant Worlds 2. Image: Frontier Developments via Commander Odinoco

Elite boasts more than 400 billion of these virtual star systems, only a tiny fraction of which will ever be visited by players. To some in the community, that represents an incredible challenge. The human mind has a difficult time settling for the unknown, so just like the ancient civilizations and the modern astronomers who came before them, a dedicated group has spent years mapping and naming these stars.

Through their efforts, this preposterously large game now has its own distinct geography. It’s all thanks to the Galactic Mapping Project, a remarkable confluence of sophisticated mathematics, cutting-edge computer technology, and good old-fashioned human perseverance.

Elite: Dangerous’ version of the Milky Way galaxy, with and without the regions assigned by the community at the Elite: Dangerous Star Map (EDSM).
Frontier Developments via Commanders Corbin Moran and Finwen

The reason that I’m parked on this rock is because I’ve signed on to participate in Distant Worlds 2, a trip from one side of Elite’s Milky Way galaxy to the other. After weeks of preparation, I’ve spent the last four months making the risky journey out here to places where few players have gone before.

Joining me on this journey is the single largest fleet in the history of Elite, now including nearly 14,000 other players. We’re all here to soak in the majesty of these procedurally generated worlds, and to hang out together. It’s a mobile feast of companionship, via Discord and in-game chat, for a game that can otherwise feel a bit lonely. Just about every other night, I’ve logged in on my PC, said hello to my new friends and comrades, and gotten about the business of moving from point A to point B. I’ve been lucky enough to spend most of that time in virtual reality, via the Oculus Rift, and the experience has been extraordinary.

I’ve passed through a brightly colored nebula shaped like webs of rusty wire, skimmed along the edges of white dwarf stars hot enough to melt my nimble ship in an instant. I’ve refueled inside the wildly spinning gas jets of a neutron star. I’ve scaled icy mountains in a six-wheeled rover, some so high that one false move could have easily pushed me into orbit. I’ve rocketed down narrow canyons with walls over 10 kilometers high, and flown between planets so close together that the gravitational force of each one in turn conspired to pull me from the sky.

Neutron stars above a stark landscape in Elite: Dangerous. Captured during Distant Worlds 2. Image: Frontier Developments via Commander Vik!ngSail

In reality, Distant Worlds 2 is a re-creation of the Distant Suns expedition, a solo trip completed way back in 2015 by a player named Commander Erimus Kamzel. It is a pilgrimage that retraces the steps of a daring explorer to a remote planet named Beagle Point, way out on the edge of the galaxy. And that daring explorer just happens to be here alongside us, showing the way.

Every week, Erimus has uploaded the next leg of our journey. His maps provide waypoints for everyone to follow, and set up places to meet along the way. And those places just happen to be some of the most extraordinary locations in the entire Elite galaxy. It’s been a four-month journey with sights unlike any that I’ve ever seen in a video game.

While Erimus, along with Commander Dr. Kaii, are the expedition’s co-leaders, they are backed by a massive team of volunteers. But these wonderful sights aren’t all thanks to them. There are many other explorers who have been down these roads before.

As it turns out, Elite doesn’t really do a good job of allowing players to share the wonders that they find in the course of their journeys with the other players in the game. Instead, Frontier has abdicated much of that responsibility to social media and YouTube. But the internet can be a surprisingly temporary thing. And so, rather than allow all these marvelous sights to be forgotten, Erimus set about archiving them. His effort, called the Galactic Mapping Project (GMP), began shortly after Distant Suns in 2015.

The exploration of the Milky Way since the launch of Elite: Dangerous as tracked by the Elite Dangerous Star Map. The red and green band running top to bottom represents the route taken by the Distant Worlds 2 expedition starting Jan. 13, 2019.

“During that first journey,” Erimus told me via email, “I made lots of personal maps, just very basic screenshots of the in-game galaxy map with arrows drawn on them to highlight the approximate route I took to Beagle Point and back, done so as a personal reminder of my journey.”

“I remember writing about my adventure to Beagle Point and back, and posting it on the forum at the time,” he continued. “Someone asked me to post a map of the route I’d took. That’s when the idea came to me about setting up a community-run mapping project for explorers to share their own maps and points of interest.

“The game was new, it had only been out a couple of months, and deep space exploration was in its infancy, no one knew what was out there. There were no guides, and the galaxy was one big blank canvas ready for players to go and make their own mark upon it.”

Now, when players find something extraordinary in the world of Elite, they can submit it as a candidate entry to the GMP. A core team of moderators (including Commanders Corbin Moran, Finwen, Anthor, Andrew Gaspurr, Heavy Johnson, Kazahnn Drahnn, Satsuma, and Erimus himself) evaluates those candidates. They’re looking for only the most rare, the most beautiful, or the most meaningful locations, all based on the player’s description and any photos or videos they might have taken. If it makes the grade, it gets added to the database, and the intrepid explorer who found it earns their place in Elite history.

Some of those discoveries have gone on to be officially recognized by Frontier, immortalized in the canonical lore of the game. They are places that even casual players will likely be familiar with: Beagle Point, of course, but also the distant colony worlds of Colonia. There’s also Rendezvous Point, and entire regions such as Abyss, Hawking’s Gap, Tenebrae, the Norma Expanse, and the Conflux.

“Over time I’d update the maps and mark on them where all the interesting locations were,” Erimus wrote. “It proved really popular from the off as the community began ‘humanizing’ the map, and giving it some character away from the uninspiring procedural names the game itself generates for these wondrous locations. Explorers added their own stories of discovery to it, to bring it alive, and to inspire the imagination.”

In time, Erimus says that the GMP was adopted by other explorers who would use the places that he had named to plot and describe their own journeys. When they returned, they would contribute even more locations that they had discovered. The GMP slowly grew to become a sort of almanac. It now holds some 2,500 points of interest organized into nearly 60 distinct regions of space, each one with its own brief description placing it in the context of the community and the game.

Elite: Dangerous - Normal flight over a gas giant. Image: Frontier Developments via Commander Lorin Arsin

Today, the discoveries added to the GMP are all housed on the Elite Dangerous Star Map, also known as EDSM. This player-run, interactive database is available to anyone, and is fed by a constant stream of data generated by the game itself and delivered as a series of text files by participating explorers. It is a living document, constantly updated by the community and the moderators within the GMP.

As of April 2019, Frontier says that players have explored only 0.036% of the Milky Way, somewhere in the neighborhood of 144 million star systems. That means there are well over 399 billion star systems left for them to discover.

The ultimate mission of the Distant Worlds 2 fleet has been to map as many new star systems as participants can find. The newest submissions to the GMP — which also include those made by other explorers in other parts of the galaxy — are no less stunning than the thousands already on the books.

Elite: Dangerous - Roche’s Planet
Roche’s Planet
Image: Frontier Developments via Commander Sky Captain
The Gates of Tartarus, discovered during Distant Worlds 2.
The Gates of Tartarus
Image: Frontier Developments via Commander Logan Darklighter
Born in the Purple, discovered during Distant Worlds 2
Born to the Purple
Image: Frontier Developments via Commander Logan Darklighter
The Norma Rock Garden is one of the largest star systems ever found in Elite: Dangerous with 144 bodies, 54 of them landable.
The Norma Rock Garden
Image: Frontier Developments via Commander Babaa Yaga
  • The Spectacle Rings are a pair of nearly identical worlds with wide, rocky rings that almost touch. Players are able to land on either one, and see the rings dancing overhead.
  • Born to the Purple is a massive purple gas giant with four intense and violent storms — not unlike Jupiter’s Great Red Spot — raging on its surface.
  • Roche’s Planet is a small rocky world orbiting a massive gas giant whose rings terminate seemingly just out of reach. Due to the angle of the gas giant, the rings look like a sea of icy stepping stones leading out into space.
  • Newton’s Necropolis features a planet with the single highest gravity yet discovered in the game. At 10.66 times the force of gravity here on Earth, landing there is a deadly challenge to say the least.
  • The Gates of Tartarus is a system that one commander stumbled upon when they needed emergency repairs for their ship. A member of the Hull Seals, a new group stood up for the Distant Worlds 2 expedition, came to their aid. Together, both players discovered a stunning system with two neutron stars backlit by the massive Phoenix Nebula.
  • While most systems contain just a handful of planets, the Norma Rock Garden is one of the largest ever found. Of its 144 different stellar bodies, 54 can be landed on.
  • Most exciting of all, however, is the discovery of the Helium White Rhino. It’s a gas giant composed almost entirely of nitrogen. Prior to the Distant Worlds 2 expedition, these kinds of gas giants were only thought to exist in a single star system all the way on the other side of the galaxy. Of the tens of millions of recorded celestial bodies surveyed by explorers so far, there are only 11 other planets like it.
The map from waypoint 10, the Morphenniel Nebula, to waypoint 11, known as Luna’s Shadow.
Image: Commander Erimus Kamzel

For the nearly 14,000 players in the Distant Worlds 2 fleet, Erimus asked that intensive exploration be conducted between waypoints 10 and 11. The Aphelion, as it’s called, is a chunk of space more than 14,000 light-years across and very lightly explored. Before landing here at Luna’s Shadow, I spent some time charting the lower regions of just one portion of it, a place called Styx, at an altitude of 1,000 light-years below the galactic plane.

Situated between the Norma and the Scutum-Centaurus arms of the Milky Way galaxy, the Styx region is a part of space where the stars are few and far between. This presents a danger to explorers, because it’s easy to get trapped in a dead end. Travel too far from a system where you can fuel your ship, and it’s easy to get stranded with no hope of escape without help from other players.

Once I reached the system known as Aristo — a stunning place with four white stars and a diverse collection of geological and rare biological sites — I changed course to a northeasterly heading, aiming my ship straight at the heart of Styx.

Tracking my progress on the left-hand navigation panel inside the cockpit, I watched with morbid fascination as the number of potential systems that I could jump to dwindled. The display, usually packed with possible destinations, eventually showed that there was only one way in and one way out.

Inside Styx, the sky was an inky black. What few stars I could see were incredibly far apart. It felt as though I was standing on the edge of a vast crevasse, with only the distant and unreachable Magellanic Clouds to light the way.

I traced my way back and forth for days across that desolate land before I found it, my own contribution to the GMP. I call it The Storyteller’s Fire.

I remember camping for the first time as a boy, near the entrance to Wisconsin’s Eagle Cave. Rather than sleep inside the cave that night, I elected to sleep outside under the stars. I remember being surrounded by strangers, their faces lit by the fire we had made. Those strangers would later become some of my closest friends, people who would help me navigate the weird waters of high school and beyond. One of my happiest memories from childhood is meeting those people, and telling stories around that campfire before I went to bed. It was a night that I hoped would never end.

A lava spout found during Distant Worlds 2.
The Storyteller’s Fire, also known as geologic point of interest #15 on the first moon of the first planet in the Fachoae XZ-I c24-0 star system.
Image: Frontier Developments via Commander The Wanderer

The Storyteller’s Fire is a small planet in Elite sitting just outside the edge of a wide, icy ring deep inside the otherwise barren Styx. Approaching the planet involves a long, beautiful descent along the edge of that ring system. On the way in, the massive frozen disk initially fans across the sky, filling the canopy with millions of rapidly spinning chunks of ice and rock. Then, just before the landing, the ring winks out, nearly disappearing as it’s viewed edge-on.

Down on the surface below is a geological site filled with dozens of brightly glowing iron magma vents. On the dark side of the planet they look every bit like the campfire I built years ago just outside Eagle Cave. The trick is that here, on the other side of the galaxy, these vents will always be surrounded by darkness. Thanks to the intricacies of the Stellar Forge, the planet itself is forever locked in place. Like our Moon, it never rotates, always showing the same face to the gas giant that it orbits.

Landing at The Storyteller’s Fire, it’s possible to see the light of the next day just a few kilometers away on the horizon. But that day will never reach the flames. I think it would make a wonderful rest stop for other players in Elite: Dangerous, a place to land, exit their ships after a long journey, and swap stories around the campfire.

Compared to the other magnificent entries in the GMP, mine hardly measures up. But it’s meaningful to me nonetheless. Like Erimus Kamzel and the other explorers who have come before, I’m compelled to overlay meaning onto this blank canvas that Frontier has created. Here’s hoping that someday, someone visits this place again.

The Distant Worlds 2 expedition is still ongoing. The final leg of the journey out, from this landing at Luna’s Shadow all the way across to Beagle Point, is a distance of more than 13,000 light-years. It’s taken me months to get here and, if I put the pedal down, my trip will be over in just four or five short hours.

Instead of going as quickly as possible, I plan to take the more scenic route. The expedition isn’t formally completed until June 13, so I’ve still got more than a month left.

And I’ve still got a lot of exploring left to do.