Monday, April 12, 2010

Orbiter - A great, free spacecraft simulator

I have not written a lot for this blog lately so I thought I would mention a spaceflight simulator that I found a few years ago which I recently reconnected with. The simulator is called Orbiter and it was developed by Martin Schweiger. The simulator allows you to control a number of different spacecraft anywhere from planetary surfaces to planetary, trans-planetary or even solar orbits.

This is definitely a simulation; not a game. The first 5 or 10 games will be spent working through one of the many tutorials. My first mission was launching from Kennedy Space Center and then rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station. As simple as this might sound, it is certainly challenging the first few times you attempt it, and I quickly gained a new appreciation for the precision required to attain, adjust, match and synchronize your orbit to that of the space station.

There are many challenges you might try with this simulator. There are no points to accumulate or enemy forces to defeat. No leveling up. Each scenario simply places spacecraft and objects for you to interact with. What makes the challenge interesting is the realism of the simulator and the level of proficiency and effort required to move your spacecraft from point A to point B. Reaching the IIS from the KSC may your first mission. Reaching the moon from IIS may be your next. I am still looking forward to a successful re-entry of the Earth atmosphere and the Earth-Mars journey. Let alone flying a more realistic spacecraft with real-world margins.

The visuals of orbiter are astounding. You might be tempted to disagree if you only see the default 'Delta Glider Mk 4' spacecraft sitting on the tarmac at Kennedy. But from space, especially with the extra detail packs applied, planets are beautiful and highly detailed. As are the stars that form the backdrop.

Orbiter itself is closed source but has a plugin architecture for both program extensions and new content. An active community exists around Orbiter, creating add-ins, MFD screens, texture maps for planets, historical, planned and futuristic spacecraft and even new star systems (See this list of community sites)

What really enthralls me about Orbiter is that it gives me the closest understanding of space flight that I might ever get. Television science fiction is crowded with unrealistic portrayals of space travel. Orbiter is a simulation that does not hold punches: Distances are huge, Newton's laws of motion are conserved and very rarely do you start a maneuver without calculation, planning, precision and delicacy. The simulation is amazingly educational.

If this sounds interesting, go ahead and try the simulator out. Make sure you get the popular extensions, such as OrbiterSound and Spacecraft and Multistage.dll. If you have a recent machine, get the higher resolution textures for Earth. Be prepared to invest time in learning from the tutorials. The experience, in my opinion, is well worth it.

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