If a picture speaks a thousand words, then how many words would an entire simulated reality speak? All we know about our universe is gleaned from photographs (granted, not only of the visual light spectrum kind) and first-hand accounts from rovers, probes, and astronauts. But what if you could explore the universe through a surprisingly accurate simulation – for free?
Universe Sandbox is the self-proclaimed “interactive astronomy software for everyone“. Through lots of complicated math and physics calculations, Giant Army (the creators) have delivered a program that offers us a pretty large glimpse of just how our universe works. And I only have one word for it: awesome.
Are you an astronomy nut? You’ll love the amount of control and freedom given to you by Universe Sandbox. Even if you don’t particularly love astronomy, I guarantee you that Universe Sandbox will provide you with a good amount of enjoyment.
As its name implies, Universe Sandbox is a sandbox stretched to encompass the whole universe. It’s an apt name once you consider that a sandbox is just a controlled environment in which to experiment and have fun. Except instead of playing with sand, you’re manipulating planets, systems, and entire galaxies.
One look at the ingame menu and you’ll see that Universe Sandbox is more than just a simulation that you watch. As you play around with certain simulations, you can save them and open new ones. You can always return to the state of your current universe.
The range of Universe Sandbox is definitely wide. One of the simplest simulations–which come packed with the software by default–is a simple simulation of the Earth and Moon. As you would expect, the moon circles around Earth in an elliptical pattern. But you can explore a lot more, such as…
…the ring around Saturn and its orbiting planetary bodies. Zoom in close to see a near-accurate depiction of a moon’s path through space. Zoom out to see how all of the planetary bodies interact with each other.
Here is the crux of Universe Sandbox. Here is the reason why I love this program so much. Instead of just observing pre-designed simulations, you can fiddle around with the sandbox completely.
The “Fun Things To Do” menu is a sort of tutorial series that shows you all of the cool things you can do with the sandbox. From changing the size and mass of planets, to exploding a moon and seeing the pathways of its debris, to pulsing out rays and visualizing the speed of light–you can do so much.
There are three ways to customize and modify your sandboxing experience. The first way is to play around with the simulation modes. At the bottom left of the screen, you’ll see a number of buttons that toggle various modes and features.
The default mode is “Live Mode,” which is a live simulation that you can watch and interact with. “Edit Mode” is where you can place, move, and change planetary bodies in the system. “Chart Mode” is a feature that lets you compare planetary bodies side-by-side.
You can also change the way objects are colored (by size, velocity, mass, etc.) and you can change the central point of a particular simulation (centered on the sun, the Earth, or some other point you define).
At the top left, you’ll see a variety of ways that offer you simulation control. The time dialog is used as a reference for the current time of the simulation. By speeding up time, you can see what the universe would potentially look like in the year 2025. That is, of course, if you haven’t fooled around with universal placements of planets and stars.
You can also change the gravity constant, the frame of time (for example, 1 real life second is equal to 1 simulation day), and you can search for specific objects in space by name.
The last way to spruce up your sandboxing experience is by using the simulation options. By toggling various features, you can change the way everything is presented based on your own preferences.
Universe Sandbox comes in both Free and Premium versions. In the Free version, you can explore and view dozens of simulations that come packaged with the program and you can control the time and speed of the simulations. Chart Mode is limited in the Free version.
The download comes with a free 60-minute trial of the Premium features which are disabled when the period ends. Premium features include adding your own planetary bodies, creating your own simulations, manipulating gravity, switching between color modes, exploding objects, 3D vision for use with 3D glasses, and more. The Premium version costs $19.95 USD.
Even if you only consider the free features, Universe Sandbox is entertaining and educational. You’ll learn how our solar system operates and I guarantee you’ll have some fun playing around with the space sandbox. It’s certainly worth a try.