So, Google Sky is pretty cool. And its Data Arts Team's 100,000 Stars project for Chrome is, it must be said, cooler still. But knocking both of these for six is Space Engine, an almost-not-quite-PC-game which is currently making me feel like an awestruck ape.
Behind it is a small team of developers building an environment on a scale that makes Red Dead Redemption
look like the bin area out the back of your flat. It's worth a little of your attention, if for no other reason than to shove a stick into the pool of indie development to see where it's got to.
Space Engine is, in the words of its developers, “a free space simulation software that lets you explore the universe in three dimensions, starting from planet Earth to the most distant galaxies.”
Yes, it's a simulation of all of known space, and a lot more besides. And it's free. All of known space
This is not, it should be noted, a real review. More of a 'hey, look at this!' For one, as noted above, Space Engine is not strictly a game. It sort of hangs out at the very edge of SPOnG's remit, being a physics-based virtual environment that you can roam with no built-in game elements. I mean, maybe you could challenge your mates to see who can find and document the most binary star systems in a fixed period of time, but that's not really the point of it. Also, if a review is a buying recommendation then it's difficult to do one for something that's entirely free and can take up as much or as little of your time as you fancy.
So, yes, all of known space. According to the devs, that means “Millions of galaxies, trillions of stars, countless planets!” It's difficult to verify, but having spent a few hours swooping around the universe the team has developed, I can at least verify that it's very, very big. And it's the work of just six developers who don't appear to have even assembled themselves into a studio. (Six!)
The charted universe has been built up using actual astronomical data, while beyond that are procedurally generated bodies. It's not just stars that are represented: planets, moons, asteroids, stars, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies are all here.
You're free to soar about it all at your leisure. You can fly around in 'free mode' (I decided I was a disembodied consciousness cut loose in the cosmos), steer one of several spacecraft or even pilot an aircraft should you decide to descend on some of the planets' surfaces.
I must admit to having found the controls (you use the WASD keys, FPS style) a little difficult to handle, but then I lean towards console games and aren't very well attuned to using the keyboard for navigation. In any case, you can select an object you want to fly to – either by pointing and clicking or by searching for it using a text box – and let autopilot do the work. If zipping about the universe doesn't make you feel godly enough, you can even control time
Once you're in there, there's a ton of data at your disposal. Orbital paths can be shown, along with labels and grids, and the corners of your screen fill up with information such as type, diameter, mass and luminosity. Honestly, as my astronomical know-how stretches to nodding along vigorously with Brian Cox when he coos, "It's amaaaaaaazin'"', much of this was beyond me. But the volume of data and detail stuffed in here is very, very impressive.
While this may reflect a little poorly on my ability to grasp the scope of what the Space Engine team has accomplished here, my favourite element of the simulation is the interstellar travel. This has a little to do with seeing the stars blur past you like you're in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon and a lot to do with how it impresses upon you the scale of what's been done. Because those points of light streaking past you aren't just graphics. They account for thousands of accurately mapped stars. That's a great achievement for a team of developers working on a free project.
While I'm not really qualified to tell you just how great this is as an astronomical resource, I can tell you that it's a very impressive piece of software. If you're interested in space or just interested in indie development, Space Engine is well worth an hour or two of your time. It's also worth the hour or so you'll subsequently spend feeling embarrassed that your greatest achievement this week was re-watching the entirety of Season 2 of Community
. I promise.
You can download Space Engine for your PC from here