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I'm writing a computer game involving space exploration, where the player will come across space ships/stations that are hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands of years old. I'm also trying to make it relatively realistic.

I love the idea of the player coming across an ancient spaceship, it being all spooky, rusted, battered, stained and generally knackered and creepy looking, but that doesn't seem realistic...I can't imagine rust happening, any stainy liquids that leaked out would just boil away etc

So, if everyone abandoned a giant space station, turned the power off and just let it drift through space for evermore - would it look any different in 100/1000/100,000+ years? What about if it was in (stable) orbit above a planet, or near a star?

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migrated from astronomy.stackexchange.com Jul 14 '16 at 12:53

This question came from our site for astronomers and astrophysicists.

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Spooky

This one is subjective. To some, just finding an abandoned spaceship would be spooky. I'll say there's probably not a lot that has to happen to evoke this feeling.

Rusted

Actually, unless your spaceship never had a breathable atmosphere or the atmosphere was vented before the spaceship was abandoned, rust is totally possible on the inside and even the outside. As the oxygen escaped, rust would be produced on any exterior iron in contact with the venting oxygen.

If you're in orbit of a planet with an oxygen atmosphere, the trace amounts could also cause some amount of rust over time.

Here is an example of [apparent] oxidation on the Quest Joint Airlock thermal cover:

Oxidation on the Quest Joint Airlock thermal cover

As Tristan pointed out in the comments, the coloration is not actually oxidation:

the discoloration on the airlock hatch cover is most likely not oxidation but rather contamination due to outgassing from materials that become volatile in the space environment (plastic, rubber, trace organic compounds in the interior atmosphere that get released when the hatch is opened, etc.). The brown color is from the contaminants being altered by UV radiation. To the extent that oxidation is occurring, it would act to bleach the discoloration, rather than contribute to it.

Despite that, you can still see both that oxidation occurs, and that even if it wouldn't look like you imagine, there are other effects that can cause a similar appearance to rust on Earth.

Aside from actual rust, when the coating and lubrication breaks down on metal parts, they will cold weld together. Steel will develop crystallographic defects and a positive charge.

Battered

In the short term, this depends somewhat on where in space you are, but we're talking about an ancient spaceship. By that point, it's almost certain that its going to be battered by cosmic dust. Here's an example of what debris damage might look like:

Debris damage

Stained

A lot of parts will become discolored overtime by radiation exposure. Does that count?

It might be hard to visualize this on other parts, but here's an example of UV effects on rope (the rope on the right is new, the left is affected by UV):

UV degradation on rope

If your spaceship is in orbit of a planet, you'll probably have even more junk to run into. I just hope you don't expect the thing to be operable. For that matter, if your spaceship is in too low of an orbit, then its orbit could decay and it could break apart rather quickly due to interaction with the atmosphere.


You didn't ask, but the spaceship might also get moldy, see this question:

Melanized fungi on the ISS - are they 'enjoying' the elevated radiation levels there?

However, the fungi would require at least minimal levels of oxygen, so I wouldn't expect the mold to last long on an abandoned ship.

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  • $\begingroup$ A small nit: the discoloration on the airlock hatch cover is most likely not oxidation but rather contamination due to outgassing from materials that become volatile in the space environment (plastic, rubber, trace organic compounds in the interior atmosphere that get released when the hatch is opened, etc.). The brown color is from the contaminants being altered by UV radiation. To the extent that oxidation is occurring, it would act to bleach the discoloration, rather than contribute to it. $\endgroup$ – Tristan Mar 2 '17 at 15:53
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You're right, there's no rust or staining.

If the spacecraft is in orbit of a planet, you will get meteorite craters. After 25 years in Low Earth Orbit, the Hubble space telescope has collected thousands of tiny impact craters (from sub-mm particles). Leave something long enough and you'll get bigger impacts too.

In interstellar space, you get fewer impact craters.

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From the outside, you have many external factors that will cause "rust like" and "stain like" appearances. Things like radiation, lubricants, cold, space dust, micro-meteorites, etc. No one will pick on you if your old ship looks a bit old.

On the inside, if there's an atmosphere, or ever was one, then just pretend it's on earth.

Finally, don't give up your artistic vision of a spooky ship to suite science. Some of the best space battles have awesome pew pew sounds and big kabooms, and engine noise. None of those things are real.

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    $\begingroup$ I would say deafening silence makes for excellent atmosphere. Hey, it did drive Sandra Bullock to attempted suicide followed by vivid hallucinations. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 15 '16 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ The game will indeed be silent. I think the fact that space blinds one of your senses, making you awfully vulnerable, is terrifying! $\endgroup$ – GoatInTheMachine Jul 19 '16 at 9:21
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Let's consider some space things that have been around for some time: Mir, the ISS, Hubble, and the Moon.

Micrometerites leave everything pock-marked

There is more debris in orbit around planets, or on other unswept bits of space, where you can expect meteorites, micrometeorites and so on. In space there can be some very large speed differences, making it a bit like an extremely high energy but sparse dust storm, combined with a hail of small sharp bullets.

Mir got holes in its solar panels and other flat surfaces, either as dents or just as holes over the course of a few decades.

Shuttle window damage was caused by a paint fleck.

The Moon has had a range of visitors

The lunar surface has lots of circular impact craters across its surface. There are a few factors that have caused that; notably the incredible amount of time it has been there, and also the combination of the Earth and Moon's gravity wells pulling passing objects in.

However, like most large, old bodies hanging around the solar system, it is covered in a layer of regolith, a kind of aggregate dust left by many many impacts throwing up a bit of matter which then settles. So over time that has acted to smooth out and cover up the smaller craters like so much grey concealer. So we could expect things that sit near planets or stars to eventually accumulate craters that look like the Moon, just at a smaller scale.

Europa's surface is icy, but young

Compared to other surfaces in the solar system, Europa's is very fresh. Being made of ice but in orbit around a vast planet causing tidal forces that squeeze and pull the moon like a cold stress ball leaves you with an ever-refreshed surface.

That surface is streaked with lines and holes.

It is quite conceivable that a worthwhile part of a large space station would be either a dwelling built out of something solid like ice, or even that it would have a large ice ball stuck to it as a long-term store of water. It could even be a repurposed asteroid that is already in a regular or eccentric orbit. So we might expected a station made of something other than metal to look a bit more like that.

So yes, there is an abrasive, impactful decay

of anything that is static.

Unless it heals itself

Spaceships of the future really should have some automated systems going on; self-healing ones to patch up the bodywork, fix glass, fetch water from nearby sources and store it in a giant ice ball.

I can imagine some of those systems having unintended effects when left to their own devices for a long time; ships that are more patchwork than original paintwork, ice balls that have grown enormously.

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it really depends on where in space. In orbit around an inhabited/earlier inhabited planet it can become dirty from space waste and dust.

But in deep space, the main problem are meteors. They would hit the ship creating dents and over 100 000 years that is bound to happen.

Additionally, radiation may eventually harm the ships systems(depending on where it is in space). If it is near somewhere the sun just died(no black hole) there may be space dust that cover up the windows

So to sum up:

  • Hull damage from meteors and other objects in space
  • Radiation damage
  • Space dust on windows
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  • $\begingroup$ The word "Dents" might evoke the wrong imagery. You should rather think of them as "splashes". At these velocities, metal behaves like liquid and "freezes mid-splash" into fantastic craters. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 15 '16 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ Most of the time dust is not going to stick in space. If it were ionized and going slow enough that it happened to stick, I doubt it will stay for very long: space.stackexchange.com/questions/5329/… $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 15 '16 at 15:24
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First ask yourself: Do you develop a game or a simulation? Because at a game fun is the ONLY goal. If realism contributes to fun, that's great, but if it doesn't, keep it OUT. So if 'spooky, rusted, battered, stained and generally knackered and creepy looking' improves the player's experience, put it in, no matter how realistic it is. Games don't have to be realistic, they only have to be consistent. So the next ancient station should be spooky etc. also.

If you are doing a simulation, well, forget what I said and try to make it physically correct. But don't expect it to be much fun, even not for the very precise users.

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    $\begingroup$ OTOH, if instead of old, stereotypical rehash of Hollywood imagery, the actual looks of a derelict spaceship are shown, that can definitely contribute to "fun". I have yet to see a realistic depiction of micrometeorite-battered metal surface, and it's absolutely bound to look fantastic! $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 15 '16 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ Modern flight simulators are very often actually simulators, which aim to reproduce the experience as closely as possible within the restrictions of the technology used. In some situations, PC-based flight simulators can even help actual pilots learn techniques. That doesn't mean people don't use flight simulators for fun. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 15 '16 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, simulators can be fun. But it's not highest priority when developing them, and it shows: Games are better in providing fun, in average. I've seen too many games ruined by putting too much emphasis on realism. In the best case the developers just waste time, in the worst case it ruins the entire game. $\endgroup$ – Martin Jul 15 '16 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin: Can you name some? Because I tend to notice the opposite tend: games too dumbed down to be enjoyable. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 15 '16 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ What is fun is totally subjective - some people love shallow sims, other's like obsessive depth/accuracy. For example my dad is crazy about hardcore accurate flight sims; the fact he has to flip 200 switches just to start moving down the runway is what he loves about x-plane! My game is going to be towards that end of the spectrum. $\endgroup$ – GoatInTheMachine Jul 19 '16 at 9:24
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The BBC article Aeolus: Wind satellite weathers technical storm summarizes a drama of over a decade where the Earth wind observing spacecraft project was delayed because the ultraviolet optics kept getting dirty even in a simulated space vacuum.

Outgassing (mentioned in @OrganicMarble's answer as well) often contains carbon-based molecules, and when these are combined with ultraviolet light (as mentioned in @Tristan's comment they can crack and become more permanently attached to surfaces. In this case these were extremely important and numerous optical surfaces.

It's a big problem with laser systems in space, especially for the shorter wavelengths.

You can listen to the audio segments in the BBC article for more information.

below: "Engineers had to find a way to stop the laser damaging its own optics"

BBC Aeolus spacecraft "Engineers had to find a way to stop the laser damaging its own optics"

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