Space Simulation Games That Teach Real-Life Rocket Science

Some space simulator games are both realistic and fun, using intuitive controls and interesting gameplay modes to teach actual rocket science.

Many sci-fi video games have unrealistic, stylized portrayals of spaceflight cribbed from franchises like Star Wars or Star Trek, with large starships that move around like sea vessels and small starfighters modeled after jet fighters. The following video games, in contrast, take great pains to simulate realistic space travel while not sacrificing playability or fun. In Kerbal Space Program, Children Of A Dead Earth, and other titles, players can take on the role of aliens launching a fledgling space program, commanders of interplanetary warships, asteroid miners, and starfighter pilots, all while learning a bit of actual rocket science in the process.

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Rocket science is a complex topic, to say the least. To design a practical spaceship, rocket engineers must create a vehicle that’s light, modular, durable, self-sufficient, capable of enduring extreme conditions, and able to sustain a crew for years. To pilot real spaceships, pilots must master disciplines such as orbital mechanics, docking maneuvers, and the conservation of Delta-v – principles extremely counterintuitive to people who’ve grown up on the surface of Earth. This is one big reason why science fiction franchises like Star Wars tend to portray interplanetary travel and combat as World War II-style dogfights in space; it’s a visual metaphor audiences will be instantly familiar with.

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By hiding the complicated math of realistic space travel behind tactile, visuals-focused game interfaces, the following space sims make learning rocket science fun and accessible, teaching concepts like Hohman transfers and the importance of heat radiators through the natural process of play. These games also promote a bold, new aesthetic of space travel, spaceship design, and space warfare similar to the special effects seen in movies like The Martian and TV shows like The Expanse – worlds where the very real perils, vast distances, and marvels of outer space are put on display. 

Realistic Space Sims – Kerbal Space Program

In the space simulator and sandbox game Kerbal Space Program (and the upcoming Kerbal Space Program 2), a group of tiny, green aliens called Kerbal start up a space program on their home world of Kerbin, their enthusiasm for exploring and settling the cosmos matched only by their recklessness and cheerful disregard for safety protocols. In the game’s construction mode, players of Kerbal Space Program assemble components from a huge library of parts into multi-stage rockets, and in its flight mode, players launch their creations and – assuming they don’t crash – engage in activities such as the exploration of planets or moons and the construction of large spaceships, space stations, and bases. A novel Maneuver Node system lets players to plot out intricate orbital transfer maneuvers based around Newtonian physics.

Realistic Space Sims – Children Of A Dead Earth

If Kerbal Space Program is an attempt to simulate realistic space exploration and spacecraft design, Children Of A Dead Earth is an attempt to to figure out what actual interplanetary space combat would be like in the distant future. Its single-player campaign slowly introduces the intricacies of space wars between the feuding powers of a far-future Solar System, starting with a Maneuver Node like Kerbal Space Program‘s, then introducing elements such as flyby maneuvers, railguns, missiles, lasers, combat drones, etc. After beating the single-player campaign, players unlock the ability to design their own spaceships in an editing program, experimenting with different combinations of rockets, reactors, heat radiator panels, weapons, and armor to create optimized space armadas.

Realistic Space Sims – ΔV: Rings of Saturn

Video Games Space Sim Rocket Science ∆V Rings Of Saturn Title

Contrary to films like The Empire Strikes Back, real-life asteroid belts are very desolate, with individual asteroids located millions of miles apart from one another. The rings of of planets like Saturn, however, are composed of rock, dust and ice packed into formations nearly as dense as those commonly seen in sci-fi movies, making them a dramatic setting for ΔV: Rings of Saturn. A physics-based space simulator similar in style to AsteroidsΔV: Rings of Saturn puts players in the role of asteroid miners trying to extract mineral wealth from Saturn’s rings, using their hard-earned cash to upgrade their ship’s subsystems and discover the secrets behind the gas giant’s quirks and characteristics.

Related: Kerbal Space Program 2 Is Making It More Interesting To Watch Kerbals Fly

Realistic Space Sims – In The Black

Video Games Space Sim Rocket Science In The Black

Recently funded on Kickstarter and currently in closed beta, upcoming space combat simulator In The Black (originally Starfighter Inc) tries to infuse the space combat gameplay of titles like Wing Commander and Star Wars: Squadrons with realistic physics and spaceship designs. In this multiplayer game, players are mercenary fighter pilots working for megacorporations that attempt to exploit the material wealth of planetary bodies like Saturn, fighting small-scale skirmishes to see who gets to claim certain “motherlodes.” While adhering to real-life physics and grounded depictions of future technology, the developers of In The Black are still striving to retain the visual appeal and spectacle of Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars-style dogfights, as pilots try to out-think and outmaneuver each other across debris-filled combat maps.

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