Universe Sandbox: Smash galaxies together for fun

July 4, 2008


If you hit up the youtube page for the video, I’ve annotated it for better detail.

BLASTING FROM THE FIREWORKS — Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently linked to this excellent piece of software and I’ve just been having a ball with it. The program is called Universe Sandbox and it allows you to manipulate and play with planetary objects. By toying with gravity, time, and the mass/density/velocity of objects, the program can create a multitude of situations teaching users about planetary motion.

Developed by Dan Dixon, Universe Sandbox does a great job of making high school physics fun and interesting. There are so many settings and variables that you can mess with that the game will keep you occupied for several hours. It comes with several pre-made systems ranging from simple moon-planetary orbits to full-sized galaxy collisions. Currently you cannot create your own system files in the program, however they are just XML files so you can write your own if you want to do a little coding (it’s pretty simple if you just look at the other examples).

The game can be a little buggy at times, but it’s understandable for a first release. Also, some of the physics can go wacky if you mess with odd situations (black holes, for instance). Your computer might also take a beating if you set some of the variables too high or have to many objects on the screen at any one time. However, the game looks great and is really easy on the eyes. Multiple color schemes give the game a wonderful look as well as wonderful textures for the planets and objects.

Overall, I recommend you take a look at the game. It’s free to download and all Dixon asks is that if you want to pay, give as much or little as you want. And if you pay at least $25 you get spiffy 3D glasses which allow you to use the stereoscopic setting in the game to see 3D images. I highly recommend you check this one out — at least until Spore comes out.

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Whoever thought I would be excited about ice?

May 31, 2008

TRANSMITTING AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT, 422 MILLION MILES AWAY — I’m a huge space geek. While I’ve never owned a telescope (never been far away enough from the city for it to be used in a meaningful way), I’ve always been in awe of what scientists have been able to uncover about the mysteries of our universe.

Well, if you haven’t been in the know recently, NASA has sent yet another lander to Mars. Phoenix is assigned the mission to excavate one of the polar caps of the planet to analyze the surface for habitable zones and look for evidence of past life. It’s not a rover like Spirit or Opportunity so it can’t move around, but it’s got tons of awesome equipment.

After it landed last week it’s spent the past week getting it’s equipment up and running and making sure everything is in working order. To our surprise, once it extended it’s arm (a several day process), it captured several pictures with it’s built in camera. Well guess what they found when the took a peak underneath the lander.

What does it look like? Ice! While they aren’t 100% positive, there is a very good change that this could be evidence that we are very close to an ice sheet just a few inches underneath the surface of the planet! We also don’t know if it’s CO2 or water based ice. Scientists believe that the ice was revealed when the retrorockets were fired during landing, removing a couple of inches of dust from the surface. Hopefully this will mean that there is a lot more ice around the area!

Keep updated by checking out the official NASA website and the Phoenix lander twitter. The most recent episode of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Podcast also has a great interview with one of the Phoenix team members at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JASON’S EDIT: Andrew and I had a brief but excited discussion the other day about Phoenix and ongoing exploration in our solar system. Neither of us can wait to get some real data on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, which was made famous in 2010 and 2069, the sequels to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke imagined that because of excessive geothermal activity on Europa and theory that it, too, might have vast quantities of hydrogen-based ice, Europa could be suitable for life. Of course it was science fiction, but Clarke (RIP) never did anything half-assed; the science was all plausible.

I’d also like to point out something that Andrew taught me: The photo above is in black and white but many photos being beamed back from Mars are colorized using filters. The shots are amazing, and nothing at all like the red-sky Mars we see in films (QUAID! GET YOUR ASS TO MARS!). Nope, the photos seem almost sunny, which is mind-blowingly refreshing.