It’s one thing to know that there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, that the Sun is a fairly average one, that many stars have planetary systems, and that there are hundreds of billions of other galaxies in our observable universe. It is another thing entirely to feel those numbers and facts. We can know them intellectually, rattle them off, and continue on with our day on planet Earth as if nothing profound was said, somehow not dropping dead of astonishment. This is maybe because even just a single billion is an unimaginable number. Our brains stop short, dumbfounded by the the prospect that there could possibly be that much stuff; the astonishment you might expect a humble human to feel at the thought of that much vastness is lost when its brain gets hung up on something it isn’t equipped to deal with, namely enormous quantities and their infinite possibilities.
We’re visual creatures with an exploration urge; and we’ve also invented some pretty amazing technology in the last couple generations of our species. What if there was a tool that allowed us to explore the vastness of space in a way our brains can begin to understand. To experience a hint of the size and possibilities of reality.
Programmed by Russian Astronomer Vladimir Romanyuk, SpaceEngine approaches this possibility. It is a free 3D universe simulation for Microsoft Windows. It takes real astronomical data including star and exoplanet locations, planetary surface and topography maps, models of familiar deep space objects like the Horsehead Nebula as well as galaxies and galaxy clusters and allows you to explore them at will.
The program’s intuitive controls allow users to regulate the speed of their travel through space as well as time. Starting from Earth, SpaceEngine allows you to fly in any direction. Soon you’ve buzzed past the gas giants and you find yourself flying through star fields as the familiar shapes of the constellations stretch and change with your vantage point. Keep speeding up and eventually you’ll leave the Milky Way and gaze back on it as the large spiral disk we know it to be but cannot observe from within its spiral arms. Next maybe you’ll aim towards the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
But when you arrive at that galaxy, or any other galaxy, what happens? Humanity hasn’t even come close to mapping the positions of all the stars in our own galaxy, let alone those in galaxies beyond. This is where the genius of SpaceEngine really shines. The program procedurally generates the universe in the places where we currently have holes in our data. It creates realistic star fields, with populations of stars based on our best understanding of their abundances. Further, it generates planetary systems complete with complex planetary surfaces, moons, asteroids, comets, even aurora given the right conditions. Users can visit any of the billions of galaxies in the program, select a star in that galaxy, visit the star, check for planets, explore their surfaces, then continue to the next. Point yourself to the center of a galaxy to experience the optical weirdness caused by the gravitational lensing of a black hole. Increase the speed of time to see Kepler’s laws of planetary motion acting on the scales of stars. If you’re craving more realistic detail for objects in the solar system, more detailed scientific datasets can be downloaded for planets that have them available, similar modifications can be made for custom fan made galaxy models, so you can dive into Stephan’s Quintet if you’re so inclined. If you happen to own an Oculus Rift headset you can experience the simulation in full blown stereoscopic 3D.
With SpaceEngine we can, in some very real sense, explore the universe, and in that exploration we can get a hint of what science has revealed to us; that the universe is vast, its possibilities endless, and here we are. I think this program is one of the great triumphs of our technology so far, and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future. Expect this relatively little known program to do big things very soon; Vladimir is going places, and we get to go along for the ride – to literally anywhere.