Space Engine: The Importance Of Interactive Simulation In Visualizing Space

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After glancing at it for a while I finally decided to download Space Engine. It along with some other games has affirmed my belief that 3D simulation might be the only way to meaningfully convey the scale of space and the universe in general to the layman. This post isn’t really about games in the sense of playing video games for fun, but it is about something I think the video game medium is uniquely suited to doing. That is, informing and educating people about space.

The first game I played that does this well is Frontier: Elite II which I wrote a post about a few months ago. It’s a space-trading game that attempts to simulate the experience of flying through a 1:1 scale procedurally-generated model of the Milky Way galaxy. Playing it was the first time I realized how far a planet’s moons might be away from it, or that most other planets in a system pretty much look like little dots from each other’s surfaces. The images of giant balls in the sky that dominate our imaginations come from fantasy sci-fi book covers and according to these simulations are quite rare in reality. A gas giant might loom large in the sky on the surface of one of its moons but that’s about it.

Space Engine is pretty much the same concept, but it doesn’t try to contain any actual “game” to be played. It’s just a simulation for you to toy with and explore. Pretty much most currently-known astronomical information about the universe is inputted into its simulation such as the positions of stars and the terrain maps of planets in the Solar System. Everything we don’t know about the universe — like what stars or planets are in neighboring galaxies, Space Engine simply guesstimates based on its procedural generation algorithm.

The effect is you get to see what the planet Neptune looks like from the surface of the moon Triton, perhaps even inside a particular crater that actually exists on Triton, at this particular hour and on this particular day. You get to see what a sunrise might look like from a planet orbiting the real life star Gliese 229. Space Engine has finally given me a lot of the visualizations I’ve craved ever since I started reading intensely about planets, or at least well-estimated visualizations.

When you start talking about visualizing space, in recent months I’ve been reminded of just how hard that is. Basically every map or chart you see of our solar system for instance is off in terms of the size of the planets or distance between them for necessity’s sake. More recent charts and diagrams may occasionally show the planets with correct size comparisons, but properly representing both size and distance is nearly impossible with conventional 2D images.

One of the best and most profound attempts to do it in two dimensions is the web site “If The Moon Were Only One Pixel.” It hammers into you just how much of space is well… empty space. Videos have to be made to accurately display the time it takes for light to travel from the sun to the inner planets. I remember back in the 90’s people would talk about scale models of the solar system that would take up entire stadiums… and still not be able to fully represent the whole system. Interactive 3D simulation may be the only thing that can accurately convey this kind of information in an accessible way.

I just hope simulations like Space Engine or even Elite become commonplace enough in educational settings like schools. By all rights Space Engine should be something the Discovery Channel or some science institution funded. Maybe in the future one such organization will try something similar. Unfortunately Space Engine requires a computer probably more powerful than what most people who could learn from it own. Hopefully as technology advances simulations like it could become more common. If Frontier was possible on 1993 computers though I don’t see why someone couldn’t make a similar simulation for a smartphone today.

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