Real space exploration takes a long time. Pluto is roughly 10 years away from Earth, given you’re travelling on a speedy ship like New Horizons. The nearest planet outside our solar system, however, is about four lightyears away, which means it would take about 81,000 years to reach by New Horizons speeds. You’d need to pack some good games for that trip. Or, you could just use SpaceEngine to explore the universe, instead.
SpaceEngine is a game that lets you zip around space at impossible speeds, allowing you to investigate parts of the universe we’d never be able to otherwise. Of course, the vast majority of us will never explore space to begin with, but hey, even Chris Hadfield could check out Saturn up close. Whichever speed you do choose to travel at will be reflected in the game’s HUD, so you’ll know whether you’re moving around within the laws of physics, or if you discovered how to travel faster than light.
Speaking of the HUD, there are a ton of options and controls to play with as you explore. You’ll find a large info pane to learn everything there is to know about a given space object, a browser for instant travel to different objects, a navigation bar to make travelling easier, and filters to control how objects actually look on-screen. You can even control time itself, so you can view celestial events occurring over large swaths of time.
But SpaceEngine is more than just a fancy version of Google Earth. Sure, you can check out the usual suspects in our solar system (Mars, Venus, Jupiter, etc.), but you can also make a sharp turn toward the rest of the universe. You can explore constellations, far away galaxies — any dot that appears in the blank canvas of space is yours to travel to. It might even get overwhelming travelling at large scales, once you realise every speck of light you see is a separate galaxy.
That said, SpaceEngine isn’t a 1-to-1 model of the universe. That, of course, would be impossible to create. To fill in the many, many gaps in knowledge, SpaceEngine procedurally generates objects in space you can explore. In that way, it’s a bit like No Man’s Sky, but mixed with real objects, too.
One thing that sets SpaceEngine apart is landing. You can land on any planet, real or procedurally generated, and see high-detail renderings of the object’s surface. Even better, you can take a look at the sky and see what the universe would look like from the surface of any given planet. Not only can you investigate one of Jupiter’s moons, for example, but you land on it and see what the gas giant looks like in its sky.
You can pick up the full version of SpaceEngine on Steam or GOG. However, older versions of SpaceEngine are available to download for free on the company’s official site. You’ll miss out on the latest updates, but you’ll be able to experience the game’s pure exploration without spending a penny. If you try the free game, don’t skimp on the HD texture add-ons, which add high-quality models of planets and moons in our solar system. Similar options are available on Steam for the paid game, as well.