There's an object hurtling toward each one of us this very second. It's massive, unstable and mysterious. It's the Andromeda galaxy, one of the Milky Way's closest neighbors -- on a cosmic scale -- and it's the setting for the next entry in the storied Mass Effect series of sci-fi role-playing games.
As is the case with our colossal friend, we don't know all that much about Mass Effect: Andromeda. We know it will feature a new hero. We know it will ignore the choices made in earlier Mass Effect games. We also know that many of the project's developers are new to the series.
As for gameplay, or a closer look at how Andromeda will work, well, BioWare hasn't shown us much. But we can look at what we know about the game's setting -- that is, the actual Andromeda. Mass Effect is, of course, science fiction, and the development team will take artistic liberties with the galaxy they're creating. But several defining characteristics of our celestial neighbor are worth considering as BioWare molds a new world for Mass Effect: Andromeda.
It was the mass relays that sparked it all: interstellar travel, the discovery of new civilizations, the Reapers and their endless cycle of harvesting sentient life.
These hulking relays are giant machines capable of moving ships instantly through space. They were left throughout the Milky Way by the Reapers millennia before their return in the Mass Effect trilogy, and originally planted to accelerate the rate at which species evolved and spread, thereby decreasing the time the Reapers had to wait before their next purge.
But the relays from the original trilogy were seemingly only capable of interstellar transport, not intergalactic travel. This implies that the civilizations of the original trilogy stumbled upon something else that allows them to reach Andromeda -- or that there were relays to Andromeda all along, and the Reapers' domain is much wider than we originally thought. At a distance of 2.3 million light years away, Andromeda is the most distant object we can see with our naked eye.
The newest Mass Effect: Andromeda trailer shows a spaceship emerging from light speed, and a character waking from a deep sleep. This could point to some sort of cryo technology humans developed to allow for extensive survival times. Even so, it would need to be very hardy. To reach the Andromeda galaxy at normal spaceship speed, it would take 785,200,000,000,000 years. To reach it at the speed of light, it would take 2,540,000.
There's always a chance that various civilizations, having survived the Reaper purge, studied the relays enough to figure out pinpoint intergalactic travel. It's also possible they're simply catapulting spaceships millions of light years into the distance, and landing them safely in foreign, mysterious galaxies.
A different scale
In the grand scheme of things, the Andromeda galaxy isn't that far from the Milky Way. As the two biggest formations in the Local Group of the Virgo Cluster, they're right next door to each other.
But their respective sizes and mass, on the other hand, are on different levels entirely. Whereas the Milky Way has about 300 billion stars within its gravitational confines, the Andromeda galaxy has closer to 1 trillion, according to observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006. And while our home formation is about 110,000 light years in diameter, Andromeda is double that.
Of course, BioWare won't be able to truly capture something of that scope. But it does open the new setting up to more flexibility in terms of planet types, solar system compositions, and the diversity of sentient species. One of the most alluring aspects of the original trilogy was its variety and creativity with its worlds and their inhabitants. If Andromeda presents an entirely new galaxy, as BioWare says it will, then we'll have an entirely new galactic history to explore, complete with politics, cultures and characters of its own.
A solar graveyard
The Andromeda galaxy is a melting pot of stars that formed over the course of 10 billion years. At one point, about 2 billion years after its birth, it collided with another galaxy, creating the massive spiral formation we can see today.
It's also an intergalactic assassin: During its lifespan, it has not only collided with other formations, but actually stolen stars from neighboring satellite galaxies, ripping them away with its gravitational pull. The huge ring of clouds that orbits the galaxy actually consists of the remains of another massive galaxy that Andromeda absorbed billions of years ago.
In fact, in 4 billion years, Andromeda will likely collide with us. As opposed to most other celestial bodies, our neighboring galaxy is moving toward the Milky Way, at a rate of about 250,000 mph, according to NASA. Over the course of millions of years, the two neighbors will gradually mesh, merging the supermassive black holes at their centers and possibly ejecting stars out of the galaxy with gravitational disturbances.
Barring any monumental time-hopping narrative devices, Andromeda's timeline likely won't take this collision into account. Besides, our sun will have burned all terrestrial life 25 million years before the formation happens. But the Mass Effect games have always revolved around big-picture issues such as the Reaper cycle and long-extinct civilizations. If BioWare wants to make use of its new setting, it has a variety of overarching possibilities to consider.