UT postdoctoral fellow launches astronomical web game


In hopes of encouraging greater interest and education in astronomy, one UT postdoctoral fellow has created an internet “gateway drug”: a simple but addictive game called Super Planet Crash. 

Super Planet Crash, created by Stefano Meschiari, is a game in which users build their own planetary systems and earn points for maintaining stable environments without causing planets to collide. The Web page also keeps a high score table that resets every day.

Meschiari said he wanted to teach people about the work of astronomers.  

“The simplest thing that most everyone understands is gravity,” Meschiari said. “I wanted something so accessible that it could make people interested in extraplanetary science, maybe as a gateway drug to wonder why things are happening. I wanted people to enjoy it on a visceral level. People are actually very motivated to be first on the leaderboard.”

Rachael Livermore, astronomy postdoctoral fellow and one of the first testers for Super Planet Crash, said the online game had a surge of popularity for the department.

“The email [containing the game] started going around in our department and we basically shut down for a day,” Livermore said. “It spread like wildfire. It got a bit obsessive with trying to create stable solar systems, and an hour went by, and I realized I hadn’t done any work. It really got interesting once a group of us starting getting competitive and fighting over Twitter about high scores.”

Joel Green, astronomy research associate, said he has helped consult Meschiari on possible ways to expand Super Planet Crash.

“We’ve been discussing some broader applications for the game,” Green said. “I’ve actually been looking for ways to make the game harder. My work focuses on the beginnings of planetary systems, and so I thought about some of the phenomenon that occur there. I’m wondering if it could incorporate the star flashing or objects coming through or wings and disks.”

Meschiari said he hopes the game helps people learn astronomy.

“My hope is that people go out on their own to understand the science behind it and understand how scientists analyze the data that comes from telescopes and tease out the signals of alien worlds,” Meschiari said.

To check out Super Planet Crash, go to: http://www.stefanom.org/spc