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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Universe Sandbox ²

Universe Sandbox ²
I recently picked up another early access "game" from Steam: Universe Sandbox ². I've had my eye on this one for awhile as I love all things space. I just wanted it to mature a little before I tested the waters. It's all well and good to have lofty goals, but my high expectations require more than just lofty goals. So I waited for Universe Sandbox ² to replace Universe Sandbox, for the product to basically come out of alpha testing.

Universe Sandbox ² uses the Unity 3D engine, similar to what Kerbal Space Program uses. As both programs deal with gravity and other physics phenomena, this comes as no surprise to me. Evidently the Unity engine lends itself to real world physics modeling. Or is it easy/cheap? I'm not a developer and am ignorant of what makes one engine better than another. Anyone who knows better want to clue me in about it?

"So what is it," I hear some of you asking. Well, Universe Sandbox ² does what it's name implies. It is a sandbox in which you can run simulations of the universe. You can do this from the simple the the incredibly complex. For example, here is a screenshot of just the Earth and our moon simulated without any other solar bodies, including the sun, present.
Earth and Moon
Or you can simulate the collision of two galaxies over a timescale measured in millions of years.
The program is truly a thing of beauty. The soundtrack is relaxing. However, it isn't very long so if you get tired of listening to it over and over you can turn it off in the settings panel. The user interface (UI) is easy to learn. There is a start up tutorial that gets you up to speed on the UI in less than five minutes. There are other tutorials available as well covering both the program and the science within the program.
Tutorials Screen
Even with these tutorials the program can still be daunting. The UI may be well designed, but the universe is vast and simply being dropped into the middle of it and told "Go!" is a tad overwhelming. Fortunately Universe Sandbox ² comes with many, many built in scenarios from the mundane like the Earth and moon simulation above to the fantastical.
Included Simulations
Another thing I really like about the program is the attention to detail given to it. There is no doubt the program is beautiful as seen in closeups of Jupiter and Io below. But the program is also accurate and up to date as seen in the picture of Pluto. Yes, it is skinned in the images returned from the New Horizon's probe last summer.
Jupiter
Io
Pluto
And in case you are wondering how much computer you have to have in order to run this program, the answer is not much. All of the media I've used in this post, including the YouTube video, were captured on my Surface Pro 4. Here are its hardware stats.

The program is CPU intensive, not GPU intensive. It runs just fine on the built in GPU of the Surface Pro 4. And having an i5 does not prevent me from running simulations, though it does prevent me from running some simulations quickly. The more objects in the simulation, and therefore the more calculations per second needed, the slower the program runs. My gaming rig i7-6700k running 8 cores at 4.2 GHz can handle a lot more than the i5-6300U in this Surface Pro. Nonetheless, the YouTube video above was run on this PC without any alteration to the built in parameters of the simulation. That rather impresses me. Also impressive is the program runs not only on PC, but also OS X and Linux.

Now, this program isn't really a game. The company plans on having Steam Achievements sometime this year, but there is no traditional game in this code. This is a program for those with an intense interest in how Newton's universe works. It can model not only asteroid impacts, but also climate change from a global perspective. The Earth's surface map is dynamic and allows for that. The same can be done for Mars, and the programmers plan to add more. One of the features that got me really excited is the ability to visualize the so called Goldilocks Zone around any star. Here's Kepler-186 for example.
Kepler-186f in the Goldilocks Zone
And yes, the data is current and up to date. I wasn't able to find out if updates happen at program revisions, or if it's done on a continuous basis, though I did discover this concerning Universe Sandbox ² while looking for an answer:
"It is no longer a one-person project; the new team has added a dedicated physics programmer, astrophysicist, climate scientist, graphics programmer, code architect, and technical artist to bring all of the pieces together."
And they have some fairly ambitious plans for their product going forward. The one thing I'm a touch disappointed about is the absence of relativity. This is newton's universe, not Einsteins. There is an awesome answer as to why this must be in the FAQ.
"General relativity requires simulating the spacetime itself. That is, taking your simulation space, discretizing it to a hi-res 3-D grid and checking the effect that each and every point in that grid has on all neighboring points at every timestep. Instead of simulating N number of bodies, you are simulating a huge number of points. You start with some initial data of the shape of your spacetime and then see how it evolves according to the Einstein equations, which are 10 highly non-linear partial differential equations."
Well, maybe Intel (or someone else) will eventually get their act together and provide a home processor that can handle all those data points. Until thin, we have what is a beautiful and perfectly acceptable simulation. After all, practically everything that all the space agencies around the globe do is done using only Newtonian physics. Seriously. You don't need to use General Relativity to fly a probe to Pluto. You just don't. The same goes for Universe Sandbox ². It's great just the way it is. Just never forget, this isn't a game. It won't entertain you like a game. I will quench your curiosity and stoke your imagination, which you may then be able to quench with your own simulation, but smashing planets into each other is not pew-pew. That's just fine with me. Now, I wonder if I can set up The Three-body Problem as outlined by Liu Cixin in the book of the same title?

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