Elite: Dangerous exploration has always fascinated me. As someone who enjoys sci-fi and would love nothing more than to explore space in real life, Elite gives me the opportunity to see our Milky Way in a way that I will never be able to do in my lifetime. The Elite: Dangerous galactic simulation is as accurate as it can possibly be. What we know is there, and what we don’t know it makes up as realistically as it can.
So I decided to do something very bold. I have played Elite since closed beta, and I have done small sub-5,000Ly exploration trips several times. Each time, I got homesick and returned to the bubble (what commanders affectionately call civilized space) with my tail between my legs. But this time would be different. This time I decided to go and visit Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.
How Far Away is Sagittarius A*?
Sgr A* is almost 26,000 Ly away from Sol, our solar system. The record time for reaching it is somewhere around 8 or 9 hours, without doing any exploration on the way. Realistically speaking, someone going out there to explore, make money, and improve their elite rating in exploration, could take up to a few weeks. This is especially true if they can’t play for more than an hour or two per day. Even more so if they can't play every single day of the week.
Regardless of whether you go for the challenge of reaching the core, or to make money, even an 8 - 9 hour trip is pretty long when you’re just travelling from Point A to Point B. Add onto that the time for scooping fuel, scanning systems, and of course detailed surface scanning any profitable planets, and your trip becomes exponentially longer.
Getting Started On My Trip
My ship of choice was an Asp Explorer, with an approximately 31Ly jump range (depending on fuel). I scanned practically everything as I started out, as long as it was undiscovered. I didn’t care how far away it was -- well, I set myself a hard limit of about 50,000Ls -- or how profitable it was. If no other commander had scanned it before, I would fly out to it and pick it up.
This proved to be incredibly time-consuming, and I started to regret my life choices within a few thousand light-years. I started to regret them very, very much.
After that, I started only scanning stars that were less than 10,000Ls away from my entry point, and planets that were earthlikes, water worlds, ammonia worlds, or potentially terraformable. Sometimes I scanned gas giants, but only if I didn’t have to fly to them. I discovered very few of these planet types at first, but as I started to reach the halfway point I began picking up some first discoveries of these more profitable planets.
However, the halfway point is where I got cold feet. I almost turned back. I’d been playing for about 10 hours over the course of two or three game sessions, and honestly, I was done. The Unknown Artifact and Unknown Probe story was just picking up, and interesting things were being found back in the Pleiades Nebula. I wanted to go back and see them!
Space Madness Begins to Set In
I took a break from Elite for a little bit. I was tired, I was far away from everywhere, and I just wanted to go home. But going home was going to take me at least a few hours, and if I self-destructed I’d lose my ship. I’m not made of money! I stopped playing for a week or so, giving myself some breathing space.
It took a significant amount of willpower to get me back into my ship again. I started to have an immense amount of respect for explorers who do this on the regular. I was starting to feel stir crazy in my cockpit, suddenly too small for me.
Strangely, this is when my determination started building. I remembered why I was exploring. It wasn’t just to challenge myself, it was because I wanted to see the galaxy. Elite: Dangerous provides a unique opportunity for me to see so much that I would never get to see any other way. This was completely cemented in my mind when I tried my HTC Vive for the first time while I explored. I sat on the rings of a gas giant eating my lunch one day. I nearly cried. It was so beautiful. (We’ll not mention the fact that I also crashed into those same rings on my way out and nearly threw up because it’s actually incredibly realistic and very scary when wearing a VR headset!)
Becoming a Real Explorer
Something I’ve learned about Elite explorers is that they all seem to have developed their own system for exploration. For me, I became ruthless. Because of how long I have to play Elite each week, I didn’t want this trip to last forever. I wanted to get back to the bubble eventually and experience not only the Thargoid storyline that was quickly becoming worrisome, but I also wanted to see what Guardians 2.2 had to offer when it launched. And it was fast approaching.
So I scanned only things that were profitable, undiscovered, and didn’t require me to travel for more than a few seconds each time. The only exceptions to this rule were undiscovered earthlikes, water worlds, and ammonia worlds. These I would still go up to 50,000Ls for. But stars, gas giants, terraformables, or anything else? They were suddenly off the list. If they weren’t in range, I skipped them.
I know another commander who roleplays his exploration in his head. He plays it out like he’s discovering worlds that humans could live on in the future. He’ll scan pretty much everything in a system. He wants humans to know about their new solar system if they ever decide to relocate there. They should know what planets and moons are around. Of course, this is much more time-consuming, but it’s a bit easier if you’re not too far away from civilization, so you can return easily and hand in your exploration data at regular intervals.
Exploration became a genuine pleasure. I started to find it relaxing. I talked to people while I did it, shared my excitement when I found an earthlike that was undiscovered. This made it a lot easier.
Reaching Sagittarius A* For the First Time
In my two years playing Elite: Dangerous, I never went to our core. There’s a supermassive black hole there, and I had never been. In fact, I had never even seen a black hole in-game before. I'd only seen them in screenshots which absolutely do not do them justice.
When I finally reached Sagittarius A*, my heart was in my throat as I made the final jump. I’d been pre-warned not to get too close (for heat damage, not because it’d suck me in or anything). But nothing prepared me for what I’d see when I jumped into system. At first, it sort of looked like nothing. I was still excited, but it looked much like what I’d seen in screenshots. The lensing effect was interesting, but it’s when I turned away to scan the other celestial bodies in system that I saw the warping and actually gasped out loud.
Frontier Developments has put in an amazing gravitational lensing effect which appears to distort space around a black hole. It’s somewhat intimidating, as well as incredibly cool.
Sgr A* Sealed the Deal
That was it. That was all it took. I was now an explorer in Elite. I would do many other things, as I’ve always done in Elite: Dangerous, but suddenly my trip felt more than worth it. In fact, instead of setting off straight back to the bubble and getting there relatively quickly, I decided to go check out the Great Annihilator, another black hole near the core. And then I set course for the only station this far out, 10,000Ly in a completely different direction to the way "home".
I headed for Jaques station to sell up my exploration data. If I did end up dying, this way I wouldn’t lose what I’d worked hard for so far. Also, it felt like another milestone. Jaques is a mobile space station, currently residing approximately 22,000Ly from "home".
And when I arrived at Jaques, I accidentally bumped into an undiscovered neutron star. Now that I was a “real explorer”, I took a look for others nearby and found an entire field of undiscovered neutron stars. This would be an absolute goldmine!
So I delayed my return once again to explore the neutron fields and scan as much as I could in one sitting. I racked up millions and went back to Jaques to sell it all up before I made my final trip back to the bubble. My only regret is that I found all these neutrons before the gorgeous new neutron star models were implemented with 2.2.
Returning Home Again
I was just as excited to arrive back in Sol for the first time in a month as I was when I first encountered Sagittarius A*. I was genuinely thrilled to see the blip of NPCs flying towards stations again. It had become quite lonely out there in the galactic core.
Now I’d get to experience all of what Elite’s Guardians 2.2 update brought to the table, and from the comfort of civilized space. I’d get to try my hand at passenger missions, becoming essentially a space taxi. But with some of those missions sending commanders out as far as the galactic core and beyond, I can hear the siren song of exploration calling to me again. I suspect it won’t be too long til I’m out there again.
What I Learned From Elite Exploration
I feel like I learned a lot about myself from exploring. Not just about my life in the game, but also about me as a gamer and a person in general. For example, I’m a lot more patient than I thought I was! And if I set my mind to something, I can do it. Even if it feels like it’s going to take a long time. These may seem like simple things, but I always thought of myself as pretty impatient and somewhat lacking in the stamina department. If something was going to take me a long time, I often took a break to do something else instead. This was completely different and I’m really proud of my accomplishment.
But as far as learning about myself in Elite, I realized that exploration was one of the things I want to do most. I’ve always liked that I have a pretty varied experience; I’ve done a lot of bounty hunting, trading, and mission running. While I don’t think I’ll ever commit to only one thing in-game, I know I will be making a lot more exploration trips in the future.
Have you ever gone exploring in Elite? Let us know if you have any sights that are an absolute must-see in our galaxy!