Exploring the Far Reaches of the Universe in SpaceEngine

Hello again, everyone! I have awakened from my long slumber—not since the ancient year of 2021 have I uploaded anything to this site. Now, that may be due to a combination of procrastination, a busy couple of terms at school, and getting distracted with other projects, but the more interesting explanation is that I was in cryosleep on a long space mission, so that’s the one I’ll go with.

Actual footage of me waking up to the realization that I should still be writing stuff.

It appears I’ve been away long enough that WordPress changed its user interface, and I need to relearn a few things. I may also have been gone so long that my remaining audience consists of cobwebs and crickets, but nevertheless, I’ve got some interesting posts in the pipeline, and will forge ahead with cool space and non-space content to toss into the depths of the internet. How will I kick off this revival? Well, today I will showcase the program SpaceEngine, a kind of virtual planetarium simulating the vast sweep of the cosmos; when I’m done, you will surely agree that it is profound, breathtaking, mind-boggling, utterly revolutionary, and/or pretty neat.

An example of a procedurally generated moon around a gas giant. This one has biological life, lakes of water, and a thick oxygen atmosphere—clement, as far as cosmic real estate goes! Just ignore the fifteen bars of air pressure.

SpaceEngine is a procedurally generated simulation of (nearly) the entire universe. Within a cube thirty-two billion light-years to a side, you can find an endless number of galaxies, and within those an endless number of stars, and orbiting those stars a menagerie of planets, cooked up on demand using an algorithm modeled after real NASA exoplanet data. In addition to these, the program accounts for more than 130,000 known astronomical objects. You can explore anywhere from the rings of Saturn to Pluto, or the Horsehead Nebula to the Pinwheel Galaxy. Real exoplanet systems such as TRAPPIST-1 are modeled, too. Movement is as simple as flying through space with the WASD keys, at a velocity controlled by the mouse wheel, or selecting an object and then traveling automatically to it. There is also a flight simulator mode, though it’s in an early state. If you get bored of being a disembodied observer, you can plop down spaceships around the new worlds you’ve discovered, and take them for a spin using Keplerian orbital mechanics.

The (modded) ISV Venture Star, from Avatar, in orbit around the notorious Spooky Planet. The last time a kilometer-long spaceship was spotted out there, it was bad news.

What’s remarkable is that this is all the work of one man. The creator, Russian astronomer and programmer Vladimir Romanyuk1, has developed it almost entirely by himself, with some help in recent years from a vibrant modding community. Development started in 2005, with the first public release in 2010. In 2019, SpaceEngine ascended to Steam, where it remains available to purchase. I’ve been following the project since December 2013; I distinctly remember that I’d just gotten a new computer as a Christmas present, and a comprehensive universe-simulator seemed like a great way to push it to the limit. Throughout high school, I found it useful not just for flying around and marveling, but for generating ideas for my writing—several worlds I discovered in SpaceEngine made it into my various sci-fi stories, as well as a Traveller campaign I once ran with my buddies. And of course, it was a veritable factory for cool desktop backgrounds.

Like so.

Zipping through the universe this way does give you a new perspective. The software renders everything from galaxies to human-scale rocks, after all. It can make clear some things that might not be obvious—such as the sheer gargantuan number of stars in our galaxy, or even within a hundred light-years of here, and the fact that the majority of those stars are not bright yellow suns like our own, but are small and dim red dwarfs, surrounded by compact systems of tidally locked planets. Existing on this verdant blue marble becomes even more remarkable when you venture for hours across a best-guess simulation of the wider cosmos, and see that the vast majority of places must surely be barren or hellish or just plain weird. There are probably more worlds out there with hundred-kilometer-deep oceans of liquid carbon dioxide than there are planets anything like Earth.

One such ocean world2, shrouded in a thick blanket of clouds.

SpaceEngine does have its limitations, being a one-man project that is still in a relatively early stage of development. For instance, while you can stand on rocky planets at a height of 1.5 meters, you aren’t going to see much in the way of detail. The textures are good, but terrain generation is repetitive and sometimes a bit wonky. The same goes for atmospheric graphics—clouds are present, but it takes a mod to make them puffy, and on worlds with thick atmospheres there’s a frustrating glitch whereby the terrain becomes translucent near the horizon. I also have gripes with the way lens flares and brightness are rendered in the newer versions. It’s definitely flashier than the older, plainer lighting I remember from high school, but it sometimes makes the game look like it was directed by J.J. Abrams. Let’s be realistic, though—even a towering marvel of awe-inspiring beauty can’t be perfect all the time.

Given the uniquely visual nature of today’s topic, I think I’ll wrap up my post with a little photo gallery. A vacation slideshow, if you will:

Solar transit, by a gas giant in a scorchingly close orbit.

A cold, cloudy ice world looms above a mountain range on a moon in the Pinwheel Galaxy.

A neutron star distorts the light from its partner, a red giant.

A habitable Earthlike world, tidally locked to its star. Also my desktop background at the time of writing.

A small moon of a gas giant, covered in the most tenuous of atmospheres, nevertheless harbors life—those green patches are some kind of moss or lichen.

Just like Jupiter and Saturn, most of the procedurally generated gas giants in this game carry with them a host of asteroid moons.

And finally, a night sky in a galaxy that is not our own, with a planetary ring peeking in on the side.

Why don’t you go check out SpaceEngine on Steam? I promise you, it’s the best twenty-five dollars you will ever spend.

  1. I’ve actually had the honor of direct communication with Mr. Romanyuk; he gave me permission to use a screenshot from SpaceEngine as the banner image of this very website!
  2. I think? It’s not like I annotated any of these screenshots, so I’m going entirely from memory here.

4 thoughts on “Exploring the Far Reaches of the Universe in SpaceEngine

Add yours

    1. The optical distortion graphics are on point in this game. For something extra trippy, try standing on the surface of a neutron star, and looking up at a very warped starscape!


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