Explore the Solar System with Cosmographia

To say the universe is big would be a gross understatement, so the idea of creating an app that lets people explore outer space must be hugely intimidating. Solar System simulator Cosmographia tackles the subject on a limited scale, by focusing on just the stuff in our galaxy. It has 3D models and star maps, great visual effects, and everything is built from real scientific data.

Cosmographia is akin to a beginner’s guide to the Solar System, and insofar as that it’s an impressive app — well presented and pretty to look at, with no assumptions of prior knowledge. But it doesn’t go deep enough, and you’re likely to leave wanting more.

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Starry, Starry Night

The app presents you with an interactive model of our Solar System, complete with planets, moons, asteroids, the Sun, and a star map. Everything is based on real astronomical data, and presented in gorgeous 3D models. You get a sense for the majesty of the universe, especially with labels and other visual aides turned off in favor of only the bits that are actually out there.

Welcome to space; it’s kinda big…and spacious.

You click and drag with the left mouse button to rotate, or with the right mouse button to pan across the field. Scrolling zooms in and out. Double click on a planet or moon to zoom directly to it. Right click on an object to bring up a contextual menu, with options to track, set it as center of the screen, show a description or basic properties, plot trajectory, and more.

Included with the descriptions are special views of the objects that highlight key features or simply showcase their beauty. This was the best part of the app for me — specially-tailored views of Io casting a shadow on Jupiter’s surface, a sunset over Tasmania, Saturn rising just over the horizon on Titan, Voyager 2 zooming over Neptune’s north pole, and many other similar scenes.

Visually-arresting scenes such as this are easy to come by in Cosmographia.

Moving around feels intuitive, and you can explore more systematically with the help of the Search function or the gallery-style view of the 40 main planets, moons, and asteroids. There are also keyboard shortcuts for just about everything, and a guide helps give direction to your explorations. You can also alter the date and time, pausing or accelerating it in either direction, and turn a number of visual features on or off.

Settings Galore

There are loads of visual tweaks. The Milky Way, clouds, atmospheres, shadows, reflection, sun glare, diffraction, brightness, anti-aliasing, anaglyph stereo, labels, constellations, star names, orbital paths, equatorial grids, and twelve special add-on effects can all be toyed with. It’s a good idea to play around with these settings to find the right balance between noise and information. The difference between everything turned on/up and everything turned off is like night and day.

Here’s how it looks with no bells or whistles or visual aides.

Beauty Only Skin Deep

The 3D models of planets, their moons, and several other key objects look great from a distance, but often lack detail on closer inspection. Most jarring, though, is the way in which the detail gets shown — planets appear perfectly spherical, with textures mapped onto their surface, while asteroids and moons are only slightly more bumpy, some of them come without the benefit of textures. This hurts the experience because it gives no sense of the scale of these surfaces — especially when looking at impact craters and mountain ranges on the rocky planets — or it just plain looks out of place.

I understand the reasoning, but that doesn’t stop this looking weirdly out of place.

Having said that, some of the real-time effects are stunning. Watching shadows dance across Saturn’s surface on a greatly accelerated time-scale, with other planets and moons flying by in the background, is captivating. You can even set objects as a fixed center, and watch the universe seemingly rotate around them. It’s no wonder the pervading viewpoint was that Earth sits at the center of the universe until the Renaissance.

You should see how beautiful this looks in motion.

The caveat to my complaints, I should also add, is that astronomers don’t have accurate, complete maps of planetary surfaces and their topography. The developer elected to use only information they could source from current astronomical data and research. This strikes me as a fair compromise, though I maintain my reservations about the decisions made about how and what to model in this virtual Solar System.

Jupiter’s rings aren’t rendered, apparently “because of their extreme faintness.” Wherever Cosmographia could go into greater detail, it skirts around. I was disappointed at the terse descriptions available for each of the objects represented. Cosmographia captured my imagination, and I wanted to know more, but I had to look elsewhere to find it. Simplicity is great, but there comes a point where you want to go deeper. And the app doesn’t measure up to this desire.

That’s it? Two terse paragraphs? Wikipedia has more information about those crisscrossing streaks (the lineae) than Cosmographia has in its description of Europa in its entirety.

A Decent Primer

Cosmographia is more the kind of app that you lose an evening to than one you use as a persistent reference tool. But if you have any interest in space, and don’t happen to be an expert on astronomy or the Solar System, it’s still a good pick. With a clean presentation and pretty graphics, it’s tailor-made for novices to dip their toes into the world of astronomy.


Summary

A Solar System simulator with beautiful 3D graphics built around real scientific data, Cosmographia is better suited to astronomy novices than knowledgeable enthusiasts. It's great for an evening or two, but a lack of useful tools and reference information make it hard to recommend for long-term use.

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