With the exploration of distant, alien worlds in mind, software developer Tom Morris, of the Division of Natural Sciences at Fullerton College, developed one of the most impressive simulations I’ve seen called exoExplorer.
Here at MakeUseOf, we’ve covered a number of cool exploration apps like this, including Google Earth and Google Mars. There was also Jorge’s review of Stellarium, which lets you explore the night sky. But exoExplorer picks up where Stellarium leaves off – and actually lets you explore those alien planets with your own exploration vehicle.
I should note that getting the software to run well without crashing depends heavily upon the graphical capabilities of your video card, and how you’ve configured the graphics to run on your PC. If you have a powerful computer with a high-end video card, you have nothing to worry about. However, if you’re running on a modest or average PC or laptop, consider reducing the resolution and colors so that it runs without crashing.
Setting Up The exoExplorer Planetary Simulator
Setting up the software is a lot faster and easier than you might expect for such advanced simulation software. The first step is to choose the graphics rendering engine that will work best for your system. If you find that one seems to crash often, give the other engine a shot.
Once you do select the rendering subsystem, you can tweak the parameters so that it’ll run more smoothly on your system. In my case, running on my laptop with an average graphics card, I decided to reduce the resolution to 800 x 600 and turn off full-screen mode.
Exploring The Universe From Your Computer
Once the software launches, you will be blown away by the depth of detail that has been put into this 3D simulation software. The first thing that struck me was the existing library of planets in the database. Each planet has its own atmospheric and terrain makeup, size, orbit, moon makeup and more. You can see the entire simulated planetary system in the center window – and your planned itinerary for your voyage is laid out in the left “Voyage Itinerary Bar.”
As you select each planet from the extensive database listing at the bottom of the window, and then add it to your itinerary, the star, the planet and its orbit is highlighted in blue within the grid system in the center pane.
On the right side of the screen, you can review the current properties for that planet. You have the option to modify that planet’s properties if you wish – and create an entirely new “exoPlanet” to explore. Change the terrain, moon properties and more.
Of course, my favorite part of this software is the top pane called the “Leg Surface Bar.” The “leg” is the leg of your voyage. In this pane, you can use the control keys (A,W,S,D or the arrow keys) to drive your exploration vehicle across the surface of the planet. A word of warning – don’t turn to sharp or you’ll flip it over!
If you click on the “Voyage Leg Orbit Bar” you can have a look at the layout of the planet’s orbit. The blue path represents the path of the planet’s orbit, and the red line is the radius.
If you get bored with the current terrain and scenery, just tweak the terrain and moon properties, and change your vehicle to a Hummer, and start racing around a landscape filled with a lava surface. The stars in the sky above, the huge moon or sun that comes into view in the sky as you turn, and the rolling hills and valleys of the planet really turn this simulation into a fun and relaxing experience.
While there is a certain scientific aspect to this software, in that it was created as a theoretical way to correlate a planet’s properties with what it may be like to explore that planet, it is also filled with some cool features that make it like a simulation game in it’s own right. The project page portrays that you can select a small airplane as an exploration vehicle, but I wasn’t able to get that feature working (would love it if any readers could tell me how!)
Overall, exoExplorer is a great way to let your imagination come alive and see what it would be like to drive across alien landscapes. So install the software, fire up your Hummer, and head out on your voyage!