NASA planet-builder game teaches valuable lessons, crushes dreams


In a really interesting follow up to the kerfluffles over Gliese 581g and arsenic-based life, NASA recently introduced an interactive website that explains what it takes to make a life-producing planet—by having you design your own.

The game starts with presets tuned to mimic either Earth, Gliese 581d (a planet that sits on the very edge of Gliese's habitable zone but seems, at this point, more likely to exist than 581g), or Mars. From there, you can alter factors like distance from the star, planet size, star type, and planetary age. That's probably-lifeless Planet Maggie pictured above.

If it seems like there's only a few, very limited ways to "win" this game ... well, that's kind of the point. The planet-builder is based on what we know about what it takes to produce life as we know it. And that list of requirements and contradictions really narrows your options. Ultimately, this site should make it clear why finding a "Goldilocks" planet is such a chore, and why everybody is so prone to get excited about the possibility that "life as we know it" isn't the same thing as "life". Lesson: Don't get too bouncy when you see headlines about either possibility. We might find extraterrestrial life someday, but this isn't a simple or easy thing to pull off.

Thanks to monekyodeath for Submitterating!


  1. We don’t even know the details of how life started on Earth and now we’re experts on how life might start elsewhere?

    This isn’t science, it’s speculative fiction.

    1. By what process of thought does a scientist formulate her hypothesis?

      Is it not a process of speculation, albeit very closely based upon what is already known, from previous observations and testing?

      In that sense, speculation is essential to the advancement of science. Disciplined speculation that is: disciplined by the facts.

    2. We don’t even know the details of how life started on Earth and now we’re experts on how life might start elsewhere?

      Thus the qualifier “life as we know it.”

    3. “We don’t even know the details of how life started on Earth and now we’re experts on how life might start elsewhere?”

      Who else is it going to be?

      On this particular topic, it’s either us or nobody, I’m afraid.

  2. We know that Adam and Eve fought dinosaurs for supremacy.

    kidding aside, the premise reminds me of Sim Earth, which was very very hard.

    1. Oh maan, I remember Sim Earth. Nearly impossible game, but fun as hell. Much more difficult to support life in that game than the NASA one here.

      I was actually pretty surprised how easy it was to get a planet to be marked as habitable in this one – just slide all the sliders toward the middle and use the right sun. If only real planets had sliders like these we could adjust. Mars? Boom. Terraformed.

      1. Oh man, I remember that game. Addictive as hell and then when you’re done you can bombard the planet with asteroids.

  3. Pretty cool. One thing it does show you is how NOT to start life (as we know it) on another planet. Too far away from the sun -> too cold. Too close -> too hot. Too small -> can’t hold water.

  4. i like speculative fiction and i’d like to try it, but like way too many things it will not happen on my limping linux computer. it’s the download this time: stuck at 46%. Other times the problem is that it will not read that file type, will only single frame videos, or something will just not run on linux and no extra software will make it happen.

    too bad because i wanted to see the effect of different star types on a given planet.

  5. “based on what we know about what it takes to produce life as we know it”

    Amazingly, based on what we know about what it takes to produce life as we know it (Earth only), only near-Earth settings will produce life in the “simulator”.

    How about something that actually simulates molecular structures and allows us to actually postulate life in all the ways it is possible?

    Because that won’t run in flash on a webpage…


  6. Is anyone having trouble with getting it to work? I can’t actually adjust the different settings for the planet – just hover over them and read the tooltips.

  7. Colman and Ugly Canuck are both partly right. The thing is that Maggie got it completely right in the original entry.

    A scientific approach requires us to say ‘we just don’t know’ sometimes. And I am afraid that ‘we just don’t know’ the range of forms of life that there might be in the universe or under what conditions all of these forms of life might develop and exist.

    The NASA demonstration is fun piece of simulation of the facts that we have, but we have to remember that the facts that we have approximate to a reasonably detailed knowledge of a vanishingly small portion of the universe, and an extremely sketchy knowledge of the rest.

    1. Agreed: I well remember how surprising the results from the Voyager space probes were when they began to come back from the 1970s and 1980s.

      Very very little of what we have discovered with those probes was in any way predicted.

      That left me with a very healthy respect for how deep our ignorance of the universe is.

      But still, of late it seems that every single day there’s new discoveries from astronomy. See:

      …for the latest.

  8. Yep, this is much like Sim Earth. I LOVED that game on the Mac… it was hardest trying to evolve sentient plants. :)

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