We call space the final frontier, but it’s a lot easier to explore through a digital lens these days. Using the massive improvements in flight and photography, many games are now simulating entire known galaxies with great detail.
Even better, some allow players to create their own galaxies, with realistic physics and gravity in play to make things interesting.
There’s something for everyone when looking at realistic space games, whether you want a hardcore sim or a laid-back mechanic game.
Learn a little physics, pop a rocket off into space, and settle in to explore further with these realistic space games that will keep you exploring!
10. Space Engineers
An open-world sandbox sim, Space Engineers starts players off on a random world. From there, it’s time to start exploring as you build up your first ship piece by piece, all before setting out into the void. Entire universes are just waiting for exploration, and it’s up to you to get humanity there.
Space Engineers does have a somewhat sci-fi setting with different planets and procedurally generated environments. That said, the entire experience of ship-building, engineering, and spaceflight is all based on complex scientific programming to mirror real life. The slightest push in space will send your engineer hurtling away from the ship, and it won’t be a fun time getting back.
Even though it’s not the most realistic in terms of setting, Space Engineers keeps things grounded with just how much work is put into exploring the solar system. Light RPG elements and an in-game economy revolving around mining asteroids give extra depth, with more updates constantly coming.
Play on: PC
Not so much focused on the space flight aspect, but SpaceEngine is special when it comes to space games. It’s intended as a realistic astronomy simulator, with the entire Milky Way Galaxy discoverable through the procedurally generated world.
Initially, that was it, but now SpaceEngine covers even more outside of our own universe. The game lets you move into galaxies and star clusters, flying lightyears out to drift among celestial systems.
Everything is taken straight from NASA imaging and the latest data, with planet surfaces available to explore within our own solar system. The game recently started incorporating spaceflight, though it pulls from fictional vehicles instead of realistic ones.
In true sandbox fashion, there’s a creation mode that allows you to make your own galaxy and stars. It’s extremely fun to play around with; you’ll just cause a few apocalyptic singularities in the process.
Play on: PC
Tiny Space Program is more of a laid-back sim where you’ll be running a full aerospace exploration company. Start out on Earth, build your first rockets, then blast your Tiny Space Program beyond Earth and to the moon! You can go further than that, of course, but it’s a great place to start.
The game focuses more on the business side of exploration. You’ll manage budgets, find the right astronauts, attempt to make ships that leave orbit, and bask in the wonders of capitalism as you monetize the unknown.
Seriously, this game allows for plenty of different ventures once you get off the planet. Everything from mining operations on Titan and IO to bringing tourists up to Mars. Just… be careful with the tourists. Things don’t always go as planned.
Sure, it’s mobile only, but Tiny Space Program is one of the best games for killing some time. It also continues making money while you’re not playing, adding a small idle component that keeps the grind from being monotonous.
Play on: iOS, Android
Sure, it’s not necessarily a ‘space’ exploration game, but you’ll be exploring the surface of Mars by proxy of a rover! There’s a slight near-future sci-fi element since you’ll be playing as an engineer on the first Mars colony, but it’s still incredibly grounded in the technical and engineering aspects.
A variety of tools are at your disposal, like soldering irons, circuit boards, and too many parts to count keep things fresh. This game isn’t for the ones who want to float through space and see the stars, but it is for the engineering fanatics. You can fix up and maintain rovers, both real and fictional, with some, like the Curiosity, included with great accuracy.
If mechanics aren’t your thing, then maybe sidestep this one. That said, it’s still a fun time to learn a little about the engineering that goes into exploring other planets.
Play on: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch
Another game that takes a more terrestrial approach to space games, The Planet Crafter, focuses on terraforming a colony. You’ll be the first to set foot on an uninhabitable planet, and it’s your goal to create a thriving, prosperous colony for humanity.
The game might seem a little daunting at first since you’re the lone crafter set loose. Before long, though, it becomes much more in-depth, and you’ll be going from a small biosphere to sprawling colonies.
Then it comes time to keep things running smoothly, navigating the economy of your colony, exploration, and expansion to other planets, plus eventual interplanetary relations.
Light on space exploration, but a fantastic sim for those who love city builders and business management. The Planet Crafter has the bonus of taking all the terraforming aspects from real science, showing that life off Earth might not be too far off.
Play on: PC
A mobile game with surprisingly great graphics, Space Simulator is so much more in-depth than any mobile platform deserves. This baby has it all, with a full-scale solar system, photorealistic graphics, and an entirely realistic physics and gravity engine.
The most fun you’ll have with it, though, are the missions it includes, putting you through historic missions like the Apollo 13. Everything is included here, from building the rocket, running diagnostics, takeoff, orbit, and re-entering the earth, among other things.
Seriously, this thing is incredibly comprehensive, and the attention to detail on the missions, thanks to NASA mission logs, makes the realism even better.
Just know there’s a little bit of a learning curve, but it’s incredibly satisfying once you have a handle on it. For me personally, getting a rocket in the air is no problem. Getting it back down is where the real challenge lies.
Play on: iOS, Android
The GOAT of space simulators, Universe Sandbox, doesn’t have spaceflight but instead an exploration of known space. It is a simulator of our galaxy and has the most realistic gravity physics out of any game out there. The real exploration of space in Universe Sandbox is exploring just how it works.
If there’s one word to describe Universe Sandbox, it’s ‘fascinating’. I’ve sat for hours in early versions of the game, just throwing junk into orbit in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Ever wanted to find out what happens to Earth when the Sun goes supernova? Now you can, and it’s awesome (ly terrifying). Even better, you’re not just confined to our solar system, with more procedurally generated.
The biggest selling point, though, is the VR mode. You can choose to either cruise the stars or recreate historical astronomical events. Or just act like a rampaging space giant and smash planets together, which is what you’ll end up doing most of the time. It’s a great stress reliever.
Play on: PC, Oculus
Probably one of the most accurate to being a real-life astronaut in modern times, Reentry is also really fun to learn. You won’t just be bringing ships back down to earth though, instead mastering an entire space flight academy before embarking.
From there, you’ll oversee the spaceship engineering and tech, take on an entire crew, and blast off. The first goal is to just make it off the ground, but after that requires a little know-how thanks to the realistic physics and flight engines. The first stop is orbit, and once you’re floating peacefully, it’s time to set sights on the moon.
Everything from the ejection to setting a lunar lander down is up to you. The handling of rockets and landers really can’t be overstated, with everything having the perfect weight and gravity behind every little move.
Returning home is once again the hardest part, though. Maybe I’m just bad at landing rockets, but it seems much easier to burn up in Reentry: Orbital Simulator than it is to safely disembark.
Play on: PC
This is another game that’s been around for some time but still delivers fun gameplay and new updates. Spaceflight Simulator tasks players to build a rocket and get it off the ground first, but then you’ll be exploring the far reaches of our solar system. Think of it like Kerbal Space Program, but without the little green men building everything.
Spaceflight Simulator focuses mainly on getting vessels out for exploration. You’ll spend a lot of time building your rocket and then firing it off to make sure it can reach orbit. From there, set up colonies on other planets to launch even more rockets from, exploring further out to beyond the reaches of the Milky Way.
The fun thing is that you don’t have to play realistically. A huge online community thrives off of making more ridiculous rockets than others. It’s a constant case of one-upping, and the results are often hilariously disastrous.
Play on: PC, iOS, Android, Switch
By far the most realistic and expansive space exploration game to exist as of now, Juno: New Origin started as a simple aerospace sim. Now, it’s an expansive sandbox where you can’t just create and fly rockets but any kind of vehicle imaginable.
A realistic physics and gravity engine lend themselves to complementing the jet engine physics, giving everything real weight. You’ll need to fine-tune your rockets in the career mode, advancing from a regular airplane engineer to interplanetary travel. It’s so damn expansive there doesn’t seem to be an end, and eight years on, there are still updates adding free content.
Of course, for the non-realists who just want to have fun, there’s plenty. I can’t think of another game that realistically lets you take a double-decker bus to space, but it’s possible in Juno: New Origin.
Play on: PC
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