NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to an asteroid does not launch until September of this year, but digital versions of the spacecraft are already taking flight — or at least attempting to do so.
Fans of "Kerbal Space Program" (KSP), a video game developed by the entertainment company Squad, which puts players in charge of their own burgeoning space agency, were challenged by astrobiologist and OSIRIS-REx project scientist Jason Dworkin to recreate the asteroid-sampling spacecraft within the game.
It might sound easier to build a rocket in a video game than in reality, but KSP is aggressively realistic. Anything from weight issues to design flaws can cause rockets to fail spectacularly. The game's simulation of orbital mechanics is so in-depth that orbital maneuvers such as the Hohmann transfer — a technique used to move spacecraft between orbits and to enter lunar orbit — can be reenacted in-game. [Build and Fly Your Own Rockets In 'Kerbal Space Program' (Video)]
Dworkin, a KSP fan since 2011, struggled to use the game to build a working spacecraft. "I built a few different versions of my own OSIRIS-REx, but I couldn't launch the spacecraft using realistic masses," Dworkin said in a statement. "My spacecraft was way too heavy and the center of thrust was wrong. When I tried to launch it, it spun up and broke into pieces."
After failing to figure it out solo, Dworkin challenged the gaming community to do better, sharing the details of OSIRIS-REx, including technical information and concept illustrations, on the game's forum.
Now, the race is on: Players who meet the challenge by the date of the spacecraft's real-world launch will receive an OSIRIS-REx care package and the satisfaction of knowing that they could out-design a NASA scientist. Dworkin has pointed out, however, that he lacks an engineering background: "As a chemist, I'm not an expert in flight dynamics and have learned a lot from messing with KSP," Dworkin said in the forum where he issued the challenge.
Just like its real-world counterpart, players' versions of OSIRIS-REx have to launch safely, collect an asteroid sample and return home. Longtime players might be used to asteroid-related challenges: In 2013, Squad incorporated the Asteroid Redirect Mission into KSP at NASA's request.
When the real OSIRIS-REx launches on Sept. 8, its target will be a 1,650-foot-wide (500 meters) asteroid named Bennu. After collecting an asteroid sample of at least 2.1 ounces (60 grams), it will return to Earth in 2023. Mercifully, running the mission in-game will take a few hours at most, rather than five years.