Introducing NASA’s Virtual Universe “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond”

by Ian O'Neill on February 24, 2009

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A scene from Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

A scene from Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

If, like me, you are a fan of first-person computer games and space exploration, you may be more than a little excited to hear about this news. A group of companies are currently working with NASA to create a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) based around the space agency’s endeavours. They will use a game engine more familiar driving first-person shooters than online roleplay adventures; the tried and tested Unreal Engine 3 technology.

The Internet has a growing number of vast space-based MMORPGs, but NASA is hoping to use one of the most advanced gaming engines to develop an engrossing first-person online adventure, where players can choose their own mission to explore space, interact with other players and build settlements on other worlds. All this will take place in a scientifically accurate vision of a near-future Universe in 2035…

ammb_feb20Players will pick a profession like a roboticist, space geologist, astrobiologist or mechanical engineer and work together as a team as they explore space and complete missions, establishing bases and outposts and traveling to the farthest reaches of the solar system,” explained Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of Virtual Heroes, one of the companies involved with developing the NASA MMORPG Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. “The game will offer both individual challenges and team-based objectives to encourage players to use real-life applications of science, math and engineering to unlock new in-game vehicles, spacesuits, robotics and mining apparatus that will propel them further into space.”

MMORPGs are increasingly popular gaming platforms, where players can participate in seemingly boundless virtual universes. Popular examples of MMORPGs are World of Warcraft (which dominates with a monthly subscriber base of 11.5 million people), Second Life, EverQuest and space-based rollplayer games such as EVE Online and Star Trek Online.

Ever wanted to take a spin on the Moon?

Ever wanted to take a spin on the Moon?

Now NASA is hoping to create a very popular online gaming/educational experience that will not only entertain, but get young people interested in a career in science and engineering. What’s more, it is hoped the game will incorporate the Unreal Engine 3 Editor so that players can design their own content, from spaceships and stations to mission profiles. The developers will also include scenarios, such as the threat of near-Earth asteroid impacts and other reality-based events as the online community develops. This will provide a problem-solving/adventure element, while keeping the science grounded in science fact.

See more screenshots from the game »

There are concerns that a NASA space reality platform may not be very popular, as other in-space universes offer space fantasy, with epic spaceship battles and alien encounters. Also, the technical detail in carrying out “mundane” astronaut tasks may be a turn-off; virtual universes depend on exploration rather than educational tasks. Hopefully NASA and MMORPG developers will strike a healthy balance between education and entertainment.

Exploring Mars with NASAs MMORPG

Exploring Mars with NASAs MMORPG

However, I’m very excited to see Astronaut appear online sometime next year.

Sources: Big Download, Softpedia

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Calvin February 24, 2009 at 7:13 PM

Um like awesome, dude! ;D

RetardedFishFrog February 24, 2009 at 7:20 PM

It would be the closest I’ll ever get to being on Mars – if only I had the time to play.

Star February 24, 2009 at 9:55 PM

I for one cannot wait for this game to be available for purchase. I wanna play :)

Mark (ISPreview) February 25, 2009 at 2:44 AM

It looks interesting but from those screenshots the early game looks about 10 years behind the curb. They announced it last year and will release it in 2010, which is about half the development time of even a rubbish MMORPG game.

I fear this will merely end up being another of those overly educational games that misses out on the fun factor. Certainly the developers they’ve chosen aren’t exactly well known.

s0l February 25, 2009 at 4:25 AM

Good idea but it does look fugly…

And the Mars screenshot looks more like a doom or quake level than actual mars…Blue/Grey sky anyone?
Why do they keep telling people the sky is red on mars this is ludicrous!! Some at Nasa are hiding/blurring/airbrushing stuff, everyone knows it and it is getting boring.

Bill Davis February 25, 2009 at 9:53 AM

Good luck, Jerry!

Dale February 25, 2009 at 3:22 PM

I’m definitely interested. Space reality is even more interesting than space fantasy in my book.

Silver Thread February 25, 2009 at 3:33 PM

It has Potential. The problem with Educational Games is they tend to be very slow moving and uninteresting. If they want to make it fun, they’ll need to let Players develop their own modifications to it I think. For example letting folks design and build their own Colonies, Ships, Suits etc that’d be a big help. I wonder how PVP Between two Mechanical Engineers might look. Heh.

Mike606 February 25, 2009 at 4:55 PM

Wow using the Unreal3 Engine and they still managed to make it look like crap. Congratulations.

cccg February 25, 2009 at 5:39 PM

Thanks for the news

hehe, I remember myself in Doom 3, wasting oxygen between airlocks …
I mean: I was walking on “Mars” !

A true virtual “fact based journey through the cosmos” would really be awesome.

robbi February 25, 2009 at 8:15 PM

I’m certain say in 10 years,as Moores’ laws of computer power continues-the virual reality game will be awesome, and for people who has extra money to burn, will require you get into a ‘spacesuit’ with built-in climate, sensory controls, and a special-built seat that will mimic perfectly virual movements traveling, walking, running, and can also smell,feel heat or chill, pain caused by hamrless but painful electrical charges during the game, of course, the ‘routine’ things like weapons,controls will be far more advanced than today and all will be controlled by the game inself!!!!!, This type game can be dangerous to anyone already a candidate for an inmate commited to an asylum for the criminally insane because the suit itself will completely block out the real world for the minimum game time of 4-6 hours!! (it must be worth while after putting on that suit and attached helmet!!!).

robbi February 25, 2009 at 8:27 PM

addendum- for ‘virual movements like walking, running, you will actually have to within your special suit, this is NOT going to be a NON-physical effort game, so, it would be best to be in pretty good physical shape!!!

robbi February 25, 2009 at 9:21 PM

addendum again, althought the physical effort to run, walk , jump will be about 5% of your true physical effort,, after a few minutes, you would not know the difference. There are already medical instuments that can instantly measure you oxygen to your fingers and other routine readings. Such a game by 2019 will require 50-100TB of HD space with a couple hundred more to run correctly/ This will indeed be the first generation true ‘physical effort’ virual reality ganes and will by then be capable is measuring your physical condition and should you are crazy enough to get a game about robbing the drug dealer of his stash, his thugs will be after you, although I said you only need 5% true physical effort in a walking slow situation, running too much will cause the game to cause you to exsert much more effort to stay ahead of the thugs as the build-in medical devices is constandly measuring your heart beat/oxygen lungs etc.
I think it would be best to see what virual education programs also in the 50-100TB range will be available as what is posted here will seem laughable in a few years.
It is difficult to say what will happen after 2019 as Moores law will reach its limits as the size of the transistors are expected to reach the single digit atom size. Perhaps this issue can be overcome if they can get a breakthrough with optical or quantum computers Much research is being done.

Bram February 26, 2009 at 12:25 AM

unreal 3 tech or not, put some crappy artists in charge of the graphics and you get crappy graphics :(. It looks exactly like all those amateur 3d ‘artists impression’ space pics. I’m not getting a sense of wonder or will to explore this at all.

EviLDORK February 26, 2009 at 3:20 AM

I would love to see an attempt at a realistic space flight simulator, but I’m not sure an MMORPG is the best format for it. If everybody is on the same game clock, how many real months am I going to have to wait to complete my virtual quest to travel to mars? A game that would let a classroom of students collaborate on a virtual Apollo program could be a powerful public relations tool. I know I’ve toyed with quiet a few little web games put out as educational tools by various space agencies, but we pay them for science not amusements. Having an interactive public simulation game as a platform for demonstrating new and future technologies will start to matter more to publicly-funded programs as more of the public is grows up playing videogames. If they don’t get it right now, I am sure they will have to eventually. I can’t wait!

Bonan Quao February 26, 2009 at 8:02 AM

Mark my words: This game will tank the first month after release. There’s no way a game about “real-life applications of science” can compete with blasting aliens/dragons out of the skies. I’m sorry, but the average video game joe will be bored out of his mind. The bloggers on this site either study, work or are fans of the space industry. Obviously you will like this game, just as I will. But as for the rest of “gamer-kind”, no freakin’ way. This is complete waste of time. The last paragraph’s concerns are right on the money. Plus, the market for MMORPGs is beginning to get saturated. I need not mention the number of MMOs that have been crushed a few months after release by poor servers, bugs, bad gameplay, lack of good marketing, etc. You’re telling me that the average gamer at the shelf will look at Star Trek Online, World of Warcraft and Astronaut, and pick Astronaut?!!! Don’t be ridiculous….

U.S. Citizen February 27, 2009 at 9:16 AM

Well, N.A.S.A., You better liston to these people here if you read anything at this web site at all. You people at N.A.S.A. got a monster by the balls here. A powerfull tool, yes, a global intelligence resource to help you tech fellas out. Better not fumble the ball here guys or N.A.S.A. will NOT be going to the superbowl. There does seem to be a slight miss understanding here though. The target audiance. To the posters here. I don’t think this project/game is intended for the general video gamer though. I think N.A.S.A. is trying to target the more higher educated and focused people. (I’m NOT saying anyone here is stupit) As to the one above whom asked for a realisic space flight simulator. There is one on line for free to down load. It even comes with assistance from J.P.L. to help you. (I must make mention: A high level of education is needed to play this simulation program.) If I remember right, it was called Orbiter 2006. You can look it up on line. It’s free to down load and run. One does not need any special computer/equiptment to run it. Standard windows OS’ will run it. There is a little snag with the sound part of the program in placement of the sound files, but other then that it does work great. I downloaded it myself and checked it out. IT IS AS REALISTIC AS ONE CAN GET. I might also want to suggest that if you down load it, you might want to also have a star chart handy whilest playing it. Microsoft has one that is called the virtual telescope to download for free also too. Algabra will help you out tremendously. It involves the launch process, trajectory, and maintaining orbit, as well as any missions to the lunar surface or other planets/lunar orbital bodies, and also the return landing. It uses the old apollos and the shuttles and a couple of experimental craft that was never used by N.A.S.A like the X-39. Flight experience will be helpful. This is much more involved then say, Microsofts’ Flight X for windows. It is made by a privet group of people for free, and it IS a big download. I might add here, not to be discuraged if you crash or can’t figure out how to lift off. I had a little time getting it right myself. haha. Man I crashed so many times I must of costed N.A.S.A. trillions. hahaha

I had a blast though.

I hope this project/game is like that one. If it will be, then all I can say is drop your socks and grab your C****’s cause it’s gonna be a ride for sure. I don’t know anything about video game engines, but I’m not too overly intrested in some one impressing me with out of this world graphics. I’m sure there may be points where the graphic detail may be important though. But the way I see this is, that at lest N.A.S.A. is finaly useing their brains in bringing the scienctic public into community to combine intelligence as a collective, to address an issue that intrests most scientific minded people into a game like enviroment to hopefully achieve advancement of our knowlege of the science’ and to futher the publics understanding of the scientific fields of intrest.

U.S. Citizen February 27, 2009 at 9:35 AM

I might also add here, that when it comes to “FUN”, ….Fun will be difined by each person that partakes in this game. One’ own perpective of what is fun so to speak. To some, fun is defined as a ray gun shooting evil do’ers. Where as with other people, fun will be defined as conquering a hostal enviroment, or developing a way to get water from the martian soil or breathable air from the lunar regolith. Maybe fun will be just sight seeing of the solar system, watching a sun set on Titan or just flying a space craft like the shuttle. I suspect that only people that enjoy or does not mind mundane tasks, will enjoy the realizem in the game. After all, realistic means real life like. This must include the mundane tasks as well. Unless your a soilder in combat, life doesn’t always have shock and awe, with boom, zoom and bang at ever turn in life. Those that seek that in a game, will have to live with the normal run of the mill games out there, else if you want real in your game, then one must get used to mundane tasks that bore us to death of every day life. How ever I suspect, being an astronaut is not in the everyday agenda of the everyday persons life, so it will involve some excitment for them. Thats what I believe anyways. So with that thought in mind, Happy landings and have fun exploring what you might achieve in life.

Windw March 3, 2009 at 4:23 PM

To me this could have potential, this seems to be spmething for adveture without the evil guys. basically exploring to look for ifferent things. Only problem is: What happens when everything has been discovered. I also doubt that the asteroid htting the Earth will spawn every few minutes.

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