Let’s say you’re sitting at home one night, flipping through the channels. You can’t find anything interesting on the TV, so you go for a stroll around the block just to kill some time. While walking you happen to look up at the sky and notice a sea of stars. Instantly struck by the majesty of the universe you decide, right then and there, to explore the great beyond. Unfortunately for your nascent plan it costs billions of dollars to mount an expedition into space, and our current technology is really only capable of taking human beings as far as the moon. In space terms, that’s an utterly minute distance. You won’t start seeing the really cool stuff space has to offer until you get a few hundred million miles away from Earth. Fortunately for anyone whose dreams were crushed by this paragraph, you can now tour the universe and get an up close and personal view of asteroids, dwarf stars and galaxies from the comfort of your living room.
SpaceEngine’s official website describes the program as “a free space simulation software that lets you explore the universe in three dimensions, starting from planet Earth to the most distant galaxies.” Controls for SpaceEngine are essentially identical to the standard WASD scheme seen in the vast majority of first-person shooters, so new users should find the program immediately accessible, which is quite helpful given its massive scope. According to the SpaceEngine feature list, it uses NASA-sourced astronomical data to generate an accurate recreation of our own galaxy, with everything beyond our galaxy generated procedurally. Though this makes the outer reaches of the universe somewhat randomized, the program’s creators boast that it includes “all types of celestial objects,” including “planets, moons, asteroids, stars, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.”
If just cruising around space at will isn’t quite realistic enough for you, SpaceEngine also offers “Spaceship” and “Airplane” modes that burden users with realistic inertia effects as they travel the void. Granted, they aren’t exact simulations of space travel — SpaceEngine was obviously created with user-friendliness as its primary goal — but they do add a sense of authenticity to the software. Of course, if battling physics while trying to visit Saturn isn’t your cup of tea, you can always just set the game to autopilot by typing in the name of the celestial body you want to see, then relaxing as the game zooms you straight there.
Aesthetically SpaceEngine is surprisingly gorgeous, given its $0 price tag. Planets feature 3D landscape modelling (based on astronomical data for known planets, procedurally generated for any others), stars generate lens flare and light-absorbing clouds of dust obscure your view. As SpaceEngine is clearly aimed at a civilian audience its graphics are closer to that seen in high-end space-based video games like EVE Online than actual NASA simulations, but for everyone other than incredibly pedantic space geeks that’s part of its appeal.
Unfortunately SpaceEngine is only available for Windows, so Mac and Linux users wanting to explore the Milky Way are out of luck. There’s no word on whether the developers plan to create ports of the program for these operating systems, but we’ve got our fingers crossed.
Update: PC World is also pretty keen on this software and pointed out the below video of SpaceEngine in action. You can’t really get a feel for the game’s aesthetics without seeing it in motion, so have a look and see what you think.