Downlink! New Space Game Depicts Spacecraft Launches & Science

Downlink is a new space exploration game by the creators of Xtronaut. (Image credit: Xtronaut Enterprises/Kickstarter)

Xtronaut Enterprises' latest board game will take players on a journey across the solar system, letting them play as one of up to six international agencies doing space missions for science.

Called Downlink, the game encourages players to build rockets, build spacecraft, build science instruments — or even do all three things. And similar to real-life space missions, any choice a player makes will entail schedule and money constraints.

Preorders are available now through the game's Kickstarter page, which runs from Nov. 13 until Dec. 15. The company's goal is to earn at least $15,000. [The Best Space Gifts for Kids]

"It [the game] is modeled on the way that NASA runs the New Frontiers program," said Xtronaut collaborator Dante Lauretta, referring to the program NASA uses to send spacecraft to solar system targets. "You can't go where you want; you need to go where the [National Research Council] Decadal Survey says where the priority science is," he told

Lauretta has personal experience with this process: He is principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft, which is scheduled to arrive at Bennu on Dec. 3. OSIRIS-REx is one of NASA's New Frontiers missions.

Working with Lauretta in this project is Michael Lyon, whose space law experience included putting togetherDennis Tito's space tourism flight on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in April 2001. (Tito paid $20 million for his eight-day flight to the International Space Station, through the Virginia-based Space Adventures company.) Lyon worked on the game's rule book and administrative matters such as fulfilling orders, while Lauretta focused on game mechanics and validating the science.

In Downlink, players combine cards to pass through the phases of space mission development and eventually do science on distant worlds. (Image credit: Xtronaut Enterprises/Kickstarter)

Game follows a series of successes

This is the third board game for Xtronaut Enterprises. Past ones were Xtronaut: The Game of Solar System Exploration (which has sold 10,000 copies to date and won an award for board games from Good Housekeeping) and last year's Constellations: The Game of Stargazing and The Night Sky, which received the Mensa Select award. Both games launched after highly successful Kickstarter campaigns that exceeded their fundraising goals.

While Xtronaut focused on launching payloads into space, Downlink highlights the next steps — focusing on what happens when a player controls a spacecraft and its scientific instruments, working to reach one of three targets (which could include planets, moons or dwarf planets.)

The early parts of the game focus heavily on launching logistics, where players can compete or collaborate to get rockets and spacecraft into space. But as the missions evolve, players also have a chance to perform science at their target worlds; one example could be to search for an underground ocean at an icy moon, using instruments that contribute results to fields such as astrobiology and geology.

"It's really interesting, and I've watched a lot of play-testing," said Lauretta. "The level of strategy in the game is very high."

Lauretta said Xtronaut Enterprises is considering several other game concepts, among them one that will follow the real-life science performed by OSIRIS-REx after it reaches the asteroid Bennu. OSIRIS-REx should enter orbit around Bennu in early January 2019, perform observations and measurements, and then attempt touchdowns to collect sample material in July 2020. It will return to Earth with its precious asteroid sample cargo in September 2023.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: