posted 12-21-2007 12:53 AM
Imaginova provided collectSPACE with a review copy of Starry Night Apollo (though to be honest I would have just as quickly paid the $29.99 had they not) and I've spent the past evening exploring the worlds within virtual Apollo (not to be confused with Scott Sullivan's excellent Virtual Apollo from Apogee Books, of no relation to SNA).
When you first launch SNA, a dialog box asks that you set your location on Earth. It seemed appropriate that in an Apollo-themed program that I was setting "home" as Houston.
From there, I was deposited on the Moon, standing at Tranquility Base, with Eagle off to one side. This isn't exactly a recreation: they use a panorama shot by Armstrong to stage your surroundings. The sky above you however, is live and set for July 20, 1969 (the time isn't precise for the panorama used, as the virtual Sun [with neat lens flare effect] is a mismatch to the overexposed sunlit portion of the photo but that is a minor nitpick).
From here, you have several choices, including setting off in your "spaceship" and leaving the surface to explore the surrounding space, but for this first tour I was most interested in seeing the features promoted by the press release posted above.
SNA includes a special "SkyGuide" that steps your through the nine Apollo lunar missions. Each "chapter" offers a different view along the trajectory of each flight. The SkyGuide's sidebar offers text, photos and other multimedia to compliment the virtual scenes modeled in the main window (though I've yet to locate the promised TV transmissions and audio commentary promoted by the release and on Imaginova's website).
As SNA is built atop the Starry Night engine, the program benefits from the wonderfully rendered version of outer space, from the star fields to (especially) the planets.
The Earth appears 3D from orbit, and by that I don't just mean in relation to its curvature but also in regards to the altitude difference between clouds and the water/land below. I've heard astronauts describe this effect but its the first time I've seen it modeled. The same is true for the Moon and its craters.
The spacecraft (Saturn V, CSM, LM) come across as less detailed when set against the richly rendered planets, but if passing through the shadow, or if viewed from different angles, they can take on an equally impressive 3D appearance.
Vehicle transitions are not animated. When the timeline calls for stages to separate or for dockings to occur, the appropriate components just appear (or disappear) rather than approach (or separate) from each other.
You can set the pace at which time passes, reliving a complete mission in a matter of minutes or letting it run in real time for days (in fact, I'm very tempted to time sync SNA to the next mission anniversary and let the flight run continuously in real time.)
Some of the preset scenes are stunning. Nothing can replace the actual scenes from Apollo 8's first earthrise (not even JAXA's recent HDTV version) but there's something to be said for SNA's version in that you can change the vantage point, such as flying behind the command module, as is first presented to the user selecting that particular SkyGuide chapter.
Some of the most striking views are from a distant perch, watching from outside the Earth-Moon system as the spacecraft traces trajectory lines into and out of orbits. I imagine it will be displays such as these that will replace the blackboards and wipe boards of previous programs.
Not all the scenes are perfect. Eagle's approach to a landing is interesting enough but when it comes to the final few moments, the LM gets lost against its rendered background. Likewise, reentries end in orbit; there's no following the capsules to a splashdown (at least, as far as I can tell).
There is a lot more I could write, and perhaps I will as I further explore Starry Night Apollo but I wanted to give readers a quick first impression of what I see as a welcome addition to our software library.
If you've used Starry Night Apollo, please add your own reviews to this thread.