Even though everyone may not get the chance to start their own private space enterprise a’la Elon Musk’s SpaceX, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t plenty of fun and interactive experiences that let anyone with a decently powerful PC to go zipping, flying, and rocketing through the stars of the Milky Way and beyond.
With the help of new procedural generation technologies and the dedication of a few passionate space explorers/gaming developers, there are a slew of entertaining and educational games that can give you or anyone in your household to see the solar system and the rest of the universe in detail like they never have before.
Rebuild the Universe
To fly around in a universe, there has to be one there to start with, right?
Welcome to “Rebuild the Universe”, a Flash-based web browsing game that takes you through the entire history of a new theoretical universe of your own design. The title falls under the category of what’s commonly referred to as an “idle game”, or one that runs in a background window that you come back to every now and again to check on and change course.
While it may not be the most visually exciting of the bunch, it is extremely informative, providing a factually-accurate timeline of how our universe was born, where it’s going, and how the scientists of today think it might eventually end up. Every building block you throw into the quantum soup comes with a companion paragraph that explains its purpose in specific detail, along with advice on whether or not choosing one elementary particle over another might break down the fundamental laws of physics.
From a purely educational standpoint, Rebuild the Universe is a perfect tool to teach your kids all about the beginning of our universe, the concepts of spacetime, and what happened in the moments right after the explosion of the Big Bang.
Not only that, but it’s 100 percent free to play from the company’s main website, RebuildTheUniverse.com.
Kerbal Space Program
“What if we made a game where instead of actually flying spaceships or shooting down enemies with laser guns, you just ran your own version of NASA?”
Look, it’s no secret that people choose every way under the sun to wind down after a long, hard day at work. For some, that’s firing up a flight simulator that lets you participate in epic space battles above wartorn planets and for others… well, spreadsheets can be fun too!
Launching off the back of Tycoon-style games like Roller Coaster Tycoon and Game Dev Tycoon, Kerbal Space Program is a spaceflight simulator that uses real world physics and budget cuts to pressure players into making as many journeys into the stars as possible all while still coming in under the quarterly fiscal financial report.
The end goal of the main Career mode is to use your limited resources to build the best spaceship you can, and try not to blow up your passengers in the process. But if all that sounds too stressful, there is also Sandbox and Science Mode, which take the some of the strain of figuring out how you’re going to fund your next booster project and lets you play around with all the same toys that NASA is working with on a daily basis.
Kerbal Space Program can be found on the Steam Store for $39.99.
Got a big science project due tomorrow, but still aren’t sure what to do for it? Have no fear, because the Universe Sandbox is here.
The Universe Sandbox isn’t so much a game as it is a virtual experiment in discovery, one where the player is free to terraform planets, model climate change variables on Earth, or send a barrage of asteroids hurtling into the sun just to see what the explosion looks like.
Everything created in Universe Sandbox is scientifically accurate to the decimal point, and every interaction is based on the observations made by real-world astronomy labs collecting data from all around the globe. So, the next time your science teacher asks “What would happen if the Earth had 200 moons“, just whip out your laptop and start running the numbers yourself.
Anyone interested in triggering a few supernovae for themselves can find Universe Sandbox on Steam for the Early Access price of $24.99. A word of caution however, the game is still barely crawling through the beta stages of development, which means that you could experience crashes or dysfunctional textures if your machine is straining to keep up with the minimum specs.
Last up, we come to Space Engine.
Though I’ve never been a fan of the whole “save the best for last” mentality, in the case of space simulators it’s hard to find another piece of software out there that can compete with the vast library of stellar destinations users will find on their first flight in Space Engine.
Name any planet, star, solar system or galaxy you can think of, and Space Engine lets you fly there firsthand. Your spaceship can weave in and out of the edges of the space with ease, allowing you to sprint from one end of the universe to the next in a matter of seconds.
Space Engine is consistently updated with realtime data from NASA and global telescopes, mapping the exact position of foreign stars or exoplanets with overwhelming levels of accuracy. As long as you have a consistent connection to the Internet, no corner of the cosmos will be out of your grasp for long.
Like Rebuild the Universe, Space Engine is free of charge to anyone with the will to explore beyond their own world (although donations to the developers are always appreciated).
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”
Back when Douglas Adams penned his penultimate series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy in the late 70s, the author could only look up in wonder at what might really be out there. These days, though, massive feats of engineering like the Hubble and James Webb telescopes have shown us just how much grander in scale everything really is and thanks to the work of some amazing indie developers we have the chance to experience it for ourselves in all its endless grandeur and glory.