Thursday, May 17, 2012

SpaceEngine: Open Source 3D Universe Simulator

If you are a space buff, you must have heard of Celestia, a three-dimensional space simulation program that allows users to travel through an extensive universe exploring planets, stars and galaxies. You can zip through space, visit planets, orbit stars and go forward or backward in time. For more than a decade, Celestia was pretty much the only thing we had. Now we have a new entrant – SpaceEngine.

SpaceEngine is another free space simulation software that lets you explore the universe in three dimensions, starting from planet Earth to the most distant galaxies. Users can fly through the SpaceEngine universe using keyboard controls at any speed from meters per second to hundreds of light years per seconds. The direction of travel is controlled by the arrow keys and the speed of travel by the mouse wheel. You can pan the view or rotate around an object using the mouse. To search an object, press F3 and type the location, or press F2 to bring up the solar system browse. Once you’ve chosen your destination, hit G to arrive at the celestial body. These actions are also available from a menu which is hidden by default and can be invoked by pressing the ESC key


For each selected object, the program displays detailed information like the class of planet/star, mass, size, diameter, apparent magnitude, orbit, tilt etc.

SpaceEngine is a hefty download at 400MB, and the large size is due to the large number of high-definition texture maps of earth and other planets of the solar system. In many ways SpaceEngine is better than Celestia, especially the rendering and details. Watch the following videos.


  • All types of celestial objects are represented: planets, moons, asteroids, stars, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.
  • The observer is free to move around the universe. Transition between any celestial body and any scale occurs continuously.
  • The observer can move around in space using the WASD keys, like in First Person Shooters. Movement with inertia is made possible in Spacecraft mode or Aircraft mode.
  • "Select and fly" autopilot: just click on any object with the mouse and hit the 'G' key to automatically go directly to the object.
  • Search for celestial objects by name. View planetary system maps. Save locations and an autopilot's journal.
  • The orbital motion of planets and stars is calculated in real time, with the ability to accelerate, decelerate, or reverse the flow of time.
  • The orbital paths of celestial objects can be shown, along with their labels and grids.
  • Automatic binding of the observer to the moving object and automatic selection of optimum flight speed.
  • Known celestial objects are represented using data from the catalogs: galaxies (NGC/IC), stars (HIPPARCOS), star clusters, nebulae, planets (our Solar system data and known extrasolar planets).
  • Uncharted regions of space feature procedurally generated objects: stars, star clusters, nebulae and planetary systems.
  • 3D landscapes of planets and stars: for many solar system bodies actual data from space probes is used.
  • For uncharted exo-planets the surface is generated procedurally.
  • Volumetric 3D sprite models of galaxies and nebulae including light-absorbing dust clouds, optimized render to a skybox and impostors.
  • Lighting effects: lens flares, solar eclipses, shadows of planetary rings. Celestial objects cast light and shadow on to each other.
  • The exact model of the Earth's atmosphere (code by Eric Bruneton), adapted for the other planets.
  • Ability to import users addons: models, catalogs, and textures.


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