While deceptively simple, Super Planet Crush is designed as a gateway drug into harder exoplanet-hunting exploits.
One of my many exoplanet systems at work, right before disaster struck. Image: Super Planet Crash
We're all hurtling at tens of thousands of miles an hour through a solar system of unfathomable complexity, one that's just a tiny part of a universe of completely incomprehensible size. Yes, space is mind-blowingly awesome, and deserving of every superlative you can throw at it. But it can also be hard to wrap you head around how it works on a visceral level, which is why I can't stop playing Super Planet Crash.
Super Planet Crash is a deceptively-simple browser game developed by Stefano Meschiari, a postdoctoral astronomer at UT Austin. The game lets users build model star systems that are governed by a Newtonian model of gravity; the goal is to get the highest score—more complex systems with larger bodies rack up more points—while also surviving for 500 years.
It's pretty easy to get one Earth-sized planet to rotate a star, but when you start sending larger bodies into orbit, things can decay quickly. As the search for exoplanets continues, it's a great way to show just how rare a working, complex star system actually is.
"While there are many, many physical bells and whistles that one could add to the simulation, at the most basic level the dynamics of planetary systems is dominated by the simple law of gravity one learns in school," Meschiari said over chat. "I think the simplicity of it is one of the things that appeal to both my friends working in astronomy, and the 'regular' people that are playing with it."
The project is an offshoot of Systemic, software designed to help researchers searching for exoplanets sift through data gleaned from the Keck and APF telescopes. The original Systemic console was written by Greg Laughlin, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with development help from Meschiari, who was a grad student at the time. Meschiari also did much of the work on Systemic 2, a more advanced iteration of the software, as well as an online version.
"Systemic is the app that people can use to look at real data coming from telescopes around the world. I made it simple enough that even a student or amateur without training could use it. A lot of people enjoy using it, however it is still too technical and difficult for the casual user," Meschiari said.
"Hopefully people that play SPC then want to know more about exoplanets and perhaps even graduate to other online tools, like Systemic or Planet Hunters, or take one of the MOOC classes on exoplanets!" he added.
Meschiari said that, even though the game is targeted at more casual space fans who'd like to learn a bit more about planetary dynamics, his colleagues—you know, actual astronomers—love it.
"People are berating me because it's making them waste valuable time when they should be writing proposals for the Hubble telescope," he said. "When I first sent it around to a few colleagues for beta testing, the department stopped for one afternoon."
Astronomers aren't the only ones stoked on the game. "The website has been brought down tens of time today and my web hosting account was temporarily suspended," he said. "In just eight hours yesterday I got almost 200,000 views, which is not too shabby for an astronomy game."
While Meschiari said SPC is currently one of the projects he works on in his spare time, he's hoping to get funding to help support its development, as well as make Systemic, the more serious app, more easily used by the layperson. (While Systemic Live does offer tutorials, it still takes a bit of work before the uninitiated can get started.)
Systemic Live is a powerful tool for exoplanet hunting, but it takes time to learn to use.
"I would really like to make the Systemic app less dry and technical, and more user-friendly and 'immersive.' Browsers today incorporate really sophisticated technology, like WebGL, that is just begging to be used for cool, realistic three-dimensional visualizations of data and exoplanetary systems," he said. "I've been talking with some of my colleagues about interesting, cool things to add to Super Planet Crash—like a binary stellar companion, or accretion of gas from an external disk—the possibilities are really endless!"
After playing off-and-on for much of the last 24 hours, it's clear just how difficult building a complex planetary system actually is. You might think you've got your ice giant orbiting nicely outside a packed habitable zone (bonus points for that!), but after a few years, the orbit might decay; throw in a few more planets, and you might get back to equilibrium, or everything might collapse. I asked Meschiari was the best strategy is, hoping to get an edge.
"You'll have to ask some of my colleagues that hold those 100,000,000 points scores!" he said. "I'm too impatient to play the game myself, so my score is tragically low!"
I suppose there's no better vote of support for the realism of an astronomy game than the fact that the best players are actual astronomers. But that's the point: By developing a game that actually shows people how star systems work, Meschiari created a clear stepping stone from casual exoplanet interest into actual hands-on study, which is made possible by Systemic. For current and future citizen scientists with an eye towards the stars, it's exciting to see such support from the pros.