I find that simulations are the closest thing to experiencing something that I have available. Often simulations deal with subject matter which which are outside of my capacity to experience first-hand. They provide me, however, with at least some level of understanding and appreciation for what they are simulating. I have found one simulation which, for me, surpasses all the others in the amount it amazes me, surprises me, and enables me to experience something which I will never be able to in real life.

This simulation is completely free, downloadable from a website on the internet. It is made by a Russian programmer, who programmed, designed, and coded the entire game by himself. This amazing simulation is called “SpaceEngine”, and it literally simulates the entire universe. It operates from the largest scale to the, astronomically, smallest scale: it goes from the chains of galaxies making up the ‘fabric’ of the universe, to individual galaxies, to stars and their solar systems, to individual planets and moons. The simulator attempts to simulate the entire univerese: present in the game are billions of galaxies, billions of stars per galaxy, and multiple planets per star.

The sheer numbers of objects in space means that coding every single one would be impossible. Instead, the game operates on procedural generation, generating what it needs to fill the universe as it goes. As you fly around in space, randomly generated stars and star systems appear, with a variation built in to resemble the actual stellar composition of space. This means that most of the stars and galaxies you are able to visit are real and actually exist, rather they are just simulated to be there. Actually discovered stars and extrasolar planets are coded into the game, however, alongside the randomly generated stars. The level of detail involved in the generation and simulation of these artificial stars and galaxies is very deep. Variables such as density, size, temperature, atmosphere, orbit, and more are produced and simulated for each object.

The game’s procedural generation does reveal the vast, and eventually repetitive, nature of space, but each solar system, no matter how random or ‘unreal’  it may be, is still unique and exciting to explore. The game allows you to fly down to planet surfaces; in fact, it has a planet surface terrain engine which makes them look life-like. The game simulates atmospheres and atmospheric compositions, so that being on the surface of these simulated planets is like actually being there.

Enough of me rambling about the amazing game. Pictures are worth thousands of words, so I will present here some of my most recent explorations with SpaceEngine.They demonstrate the power and complexity of the simulator, and perhaps are illustrations of what I was trying to describe.

(Click on images to enlarge them)

This displays the in-game information available. Selected is an alien world, a desert moon. In the background you can see the gas giant it orbits. The moon’s name is HD 55964 4.4; it is not real, though the star it orbits is and has been discovered and indexed. This moon is very small, .196 times the diameter of Earth, according to the information on the upper left of the screen. It orbits the gas giant every 8.882. This moon’s gravity is about 1/4th that of Earth’s, at .224g, and its atmosphere is just a bit thicker than ours, at 1.23atm. The surface temperature on this desert moon is quite bearable, hovering at around 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

This picture displays the surface of a planet and the power of the simulator. Seen here is a view of a very bright star, which otherwise is similar in composition and size to our own sun. In the sky are moons orbiting this large, Earth-like world. In the distance, on the horizon, are snow capped mountains.

A fascinating pair of worlds: a desert planet, similar to Mars in appearance but slightly larger than Earth, is orbited by a ringed moon, slightly smaller than Earth but otherwise exactly like it. The simulator points out that this moon has life on it.

To demonstrate how beautiful the situations this simulation can produce, I present this view from that ringed planet. The side of the moon I am viewing from is tidally locked to the planet, the moon rotates in union with its orbit around it. At night ,and during the day, the planet is in the sky. The nighttime view presents a constant sight, the shadow of the planet against the moon. The rings in the sky, circling the moon, also have a shadow cast upon them.

These pictures show how powerful this simulator is. Its a very visual experience; the simulator produces very good graphics. It enables me to travel through the universe, to distant and amazing worlds, to see these incredible sights. I will never otherwise be able to. Those sights exist, but this is the next best thing to actually looking out and seeing them.

The simulator is available at http://en.spaceengine.org/