Sciency Words: Orbital Vocabulary

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term (or in today’s case, four terms) to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together.

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Space travel really isn’t complicated once you understand the terminology. Words like left, right, up, and down don’t mean much in zero gravity, nor do words like forward or backward. If you’re aboard a ship that uses centrifugal force to simulate gravity, even the terms port and starboard might cause confusion. So in order to navigate in space, we need to use a whole new vocabulary.

As I discussed on Wednesday, I’ve started playing Kerbal Space Program as a way to learn more about space travel. Thanks to the game and various game F.A.Q.s I’ve found online, I’ve picked up four new sciency words every space navigator needs to know.

  • Apoapsis: the highest point in your orbital path.
  • Periapsis: the lowest point in your orbital path.
  • Retrograde: if you fire your rockets in the opposite direction to your movement, you’re firing them retrograde. This will cause you to slow down.
  • Prograde: if you fire your rockets in the same direction as your movement, this is prograde, and it will cause you to speed up.
A shot of my first spacecraft to successfully achieve orbit!  This was perhaps one of the proudest moments in my life (don’t judge me).
A shot of my first K.S.P. spacecraft to successfully achieve orbit! This was perhaps one of the proudest moments in my life (don’t judge me).

When you want to move your spaceship to a higher orbit, fire your rockets prograde. If you want to lower your orbit, fire your rockets retrograde. According to my research and my experience in Kerbal Space Program, lowering your orbit from your apoapsis (highest point) is the most fuel-efficient option. The same is true for increasing your orbit from your periapsis (lowest point).

These four terms are still new to me. I’ve only been playing Kerbal for a little over a week now. So if anything I’ve written here is mistaken, either in regards to Kerbal Space Program or real life, please let me know in the comments below.

P.S.: Today’s post is related to a series here on Planet Pailly about sciency video games. To find out more, click here.

Sciency Games: Kerbal Space Program

Today’s post is part of a series of posts profiling sciency video games.  These are educational games, most available for free online, that can really help you gain a deeper understanding of science.  Click here to find out more about this series.

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If I ever get the opportunity to go to space, I’m pretty sure I’ll be this guy:

The best way to learn how to do something is to actually do it, and preferably to do it repeatedly.  In Kerbal Space Program, you are in charge of your own space program with an infinite number of squishy, green volunteers who are so eager to get to space they don’t care what crazy, new spaceship design you’ve come up with.  This game will teach you about space travel by making you do it over and over again.

That might sound tedious and dull, but it’s not.  When you sit down to build your first spaceship, I recommend reading the descriptions of the various spaceship parts.  We’re told that some pieces of highly advanced equipment came from the local junkyard.  Others were found lying by the side of the road.  Still others are described as “dishwasher safe” or “unsuitable for children under the age of 4.”  If you’re still not convinced this is an educational video game with a sense of humor… watch the video again.  Or watch this one:

The only downside to Kerbal Space Program is that you don’t receive much guidance.  You basically have to figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it through trial and error.  My first launch ended in spectacular failure because, among other things, I didn’t know to include a parachute on my space capsule.  But I learned, and now I’m better at this game, and none of my Kerbals have died since!

As a science fiction writer, I doubt I’ll ever write a highly technical description of how to launch a spacecraft into orbit—I wouldn’t want to bore my readers—but even though I may never include such information in a story, I still need to know it.  What differentiates great science fiction from the mediocre variety are authors who can write about science with confidence, as opposed to authors who can only make timid guesses about futuristic technology.  With the help of my Kerbal friends, I hope to become more confident about the science part of my storytelling.

Sadly, Kerbal Space Program is the only game on my list of sciency video games that isn’t free, but if you’re interested, please click here to find out how you can get the free demo version, or click here to buy the game.

Let the Sciency Games Commence!

I started this blog as a way to force myself, as a science fiction writer, to do the kind of research that I and so many other aspiring Sci-Fi authors neglect to do. I’ve learned a lot since Planet Pailly began, and I hope you’ve learned something too. Today, I want to share a few tools that have helped make learning a little easier.

I say tools, but what I really mean are video games. It’s amazing how much you can learn from a game when that game is scientifically accurate (or at least accurate-ish). Here are three examples:

  • Fe [26]: Atoms are important, but where do they come from? In Fe [26], which is modeled on the popular smart phone game 2048, you control the fusion reactions that occur inside a star. The real fun is figuring out which combinations of particles work and which ones don’t. Click here to play Fe [26].
  • Super Planet Crash: The planets in our Solar System exist in a delicate balance. Subtle changes in gravity or momentum can have disastrous consequences… which is what Super Planet Crash is all about! Your goal is to create a stable star system. You score points based on how long your planets stay in orbit around their parent star. Click here to play Super Planet Crash.
  • Kerbal Space Program: The people of Kerbin are cute, squishy green guys who are hyper excited about space exploration, and for some reason they’ve put you in charge of their space program. This game simulates not only the physics of space flight but also the logistics of running a NASA-esque organization. Of all the games on this list, this is the only one that isn’t free, but if you’re interested, click here to check out the demo version of the game.

The important thing about all these games is that you learn by doing. That makes them far more effective teaching tools than any lecture, book, or sciency blog post.

For the rest of this month, I’ll be taking a closer look at each of these games. Here is the itinerary for those upcoming reviews as well as special editions of Sciency Words featuring words I learned because of these games.

Wednesday, May 14: Review of Fe [26]

Friday, May 16: Sciency Words: Triple Alpha Process

Wednesday, May 21: Review of Super Planet Crash

Friday, May 23: Sciency Words: Eccentricity

Wednesday, May 28: Review of Kerbal Space Program

Friday, May 30: Sciency Words: Orbital Vocabulary