For decades, scientists and engineers have emphasized the hazards of space debris accumulating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO). Even small-sized debris flying at high speeds can harm crew and infrastructure. The increase in space launch traffic has increased space debris orbiting near Earth. The April 2022 Space Debris Environment Report released by the European Space Agency’s Debris Office estimates more than 31K objects being regularly tracked by Space Surveillance Networks, with approximately 130 million objects greater than 1 mm not being tracked.
Space debris is becoming more than pesky junk. In March 2022, an old rocket stage that had been orbiting for seven years smashed into the Moon’s far side, leaving a surprising double crater. Although the rocket’s origins remain unclear, it is the first documented Lunar crater from human activities. The November 2021 blast that blew up the Russian satellite Cosmos 1408 into thousands of shrapnel and residue forced astronauts and cosmonauts in the International Space Station (ISS) to shelter in escape vehicles. In mid-June, the Russian Progress MS-20 freighter (robotic transport ship), which had been docked at the ISS, conducted an unplanned thruster burn (Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver, or PDAM) for 4 mins, 34 seconds to move the station further away from lingering residue from the blast.
With ambitious plans to increase humanity’s presence in cislunar orbit and Mars, the problems with space debris in our corner of the Solar System will continue to complicate. Therefore, I was inspired to experiment with a creative medium while bringing attention to it. I decided to produce and conceptualize an experimental video game, “Spacing Out with R-Capek,” in partnership with Texas-based indie game designers Annie Wu and David Martinez. This free browser desktop game on the popular indie gaming platform Itch.io explores how robots and humans collaborate in space as the threat of space debris grows.
I had no prior experience producing video games, nor did I have the luxury of a sizable discretionary budget. So why did I choose to experiment and explore a different medium? Because games are, by definition, escapist settings to play, grow, and learn with quicker feedback loops than in real life. Some games can be exceptionally resourceful in approaching seemingly intractable problems. In fact, playing games compares to how excellent science fiction encourages us to ask hard questions and use our imagination to understand the bigger picture. Some of the most thought-provoking science fiction reminds us in creative ways, like playing games, that research and development of new robotic technologies must add value to our existence on Earth and in space.
I also discovered along the way that designing games with indie creators, much like writing or creating art, is a fascinating process of introspection and self-discovery. On one hand, I continued to research the latest developments in space science and engineering, including novel ideas being proposed worldwide such as high-powered lasers to move debris to a different orbit (EOS Space Systems, Australia), or debris docking and removal through autonomous spacecraft (Astroscale, Japan). On the other hand, I learned what gaming strategies worked and what is consistent with a good experience for the player. Much has been written about the psychology of video games. At its core, designing and playing games requires a different approach to problem-solving and a high degree of situational awareness.
Jane McGonigal, a well-renowned US game designer, inventor, and researcher, has been a strong advocate for using online collaborative games to solve the world’s most urgent problems, for example, poverty, hunger, climate change, among others. In an older but popular Ted talk, McGonigal goes to great lengths to explain how games can change perceived limitations of what we’re capable of due to the positive emotion epic wins bring about.
An epic win is defined as a victory so overwhelmingly incredible in the eyes of the gamer that they discover just how much they’re truly capable against the odds of what was previously seen as impossible. McGonigal also points out that younger generations worldwide are becoming increasingly sophisticated at playing and developing online games. Some statistics estimate more than three billion gamers worldwide, which presents an exciting opportunity to crowdsource some of the most challenging problems — like space debris.
Jonathan Blow is another veteran programmer and recognized indie video game developer in the United States. Blow’s Youtube channel is rich with his presentations explaining his views about using video games to improve education. In addition, he advances the positive net value of learning and discovery through online games. In particular, there’s a July 2020 presentation where he points out that games should be taken seriously as a medium, especially as it relates to experimenting with different iterations, scenarios, and configurations in the same game and from contrasting angles and points-of-view.
According to McGonigal and Blow, games can encourage one to become a better thinker. By developing deep expertise in the pursuit of a win, gaming forces you to formulate your ideas and experiments and test them alone or in collaboration with others. I also found this accurate when conceptualizing the game with a unique character robot as a partner.
“R-partner” Monica Hernandez. 2022.
I knew I wished to pay tribute to the history of robots for a robotic-inspired video game tackling space debris. “Robota” means forced labor and hard work in the Czech language. The term was first coined by the Czech artist Josef Capek and popularized by his brother Karel Capek - a writer - in his 1920 science fiction play Rossum’s Universal Robots. (R.U.R). In Capek’s play, robots were human-made synthetic organic beings — possibly the predecessor to our understanding of modern androids.
The robots in Capek’s R.U.R were initially happy to work for humans but eventually revolted. Death and destruction followed, leaving a bleak impression of human-robotic co-existence and collaboration. Since R.U.R., an abundance of dystopian narratives continues to predominate in the mainstream news, films, and literature, popularizing doomsday narratives.
In contrast, I believe we’re missing more of the positive outlooks for a future with autonomous robots, especially for long-term space research, travel, and exploration. I’ve written about this for Hacker Noon before, but I often come back to the vital partnership between humans and robots in space in my writing as I’m fascinated by it.
If you think about it, given our present knowledge about life on Mars, only robotic landers and rovers inhabit this alien planet. So how does this reality expand our vision of what it means for humanity to become multiplanetary? With robots becoming more like ambassadors of society, I’m reminded of a recent trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Journey to Mars exhibit. There’s a message on one of the Journey to Mars exhibit halls, “bots before boots,” to remind visitors about these incredible machines traveling to the Solar System on our behalf.
NASA Kennedy Space Center (Monica Hernandez 2022).
So, I wanted to spin a hopeful alternative to Capek’s R.U.R and many mainstream narratives about robots. Humans and robots must work as partners in space to survive and thrive. Our understanding of this symbiosis will be vital to becoming a multiplanetary species.
What inspires you about space exploration and space research?
Wu: The future depends very much on space exploration and research. My concern is mainly with the focus on the environmental state of the Earth. Research that brings us some insight on how to cultivate energy better, find alternatives or even inhabit other planets is extremely critical information. But in addition, innovation in space technology has always been the source of important resources for humanity. For example, MRI scanners, smoke detectors, and even portable vacuum cleaners have roots in space research.
Artistically, I see space as colorful an ecosystem as any other on Earth. I love to imagine the different life forms that potentially exist and their varied ways of living. In addition, there is an element of mystery to space. I am sure there must be things we could not even possibly try to conceive within our current framework and intelligence.
Martinez: Space exploration fascinates me because of the thought-provoking questions relating to its many mysteries. Honestly, if I weren’t an electrical engineer, I would likely pursue space science and research as I imagine there is still much research to be done over astronomical objects and bodies. However, the cosmic phenomena I am most interested in reading about in the future are black holes and newly discovered planets with the ability to support life.
Another thing that entices me about space research is how our planet is affected when we take resources out and into another world. For example, our ecosystem is driven by an algorithm that involves recycling materials, so what will happen to Earth’s resources when space research expands farther? Questions like these inspire me to learn more about space.
How long have you been designing/working on games?
Wu: I have been designing games for approximately four years now. I mainly manage the graphics department, including the visual concept & storytelling, animation, and 3-D modeling if needed. I started on Roblox with Fluent_Lua, creator of the racing game Accelerate, and eventually moved into smaller, indie game development.
Martinez: I have designed games in Unity and Unreal Engine for four years. If I had realized how fun it is to use both these engines, I would have probably started developing games much younger. Documentation, interviews, and journal articles have really pushed me to learn more about games and how to make reasonable decisions to make games a fascinating, rewarding experience for the player. I plan to continue this trend in the future.
What can games provide/offer to popularize space science and engineering?
Wu: Space science and engineering are often intimidating areas of study. Games provide a form of tangible interaction that is not only graphically simplistic but can convey complex messages with an element of fun!
Martinez: Games can pique gamers’ interest by placing them in moody, exciting environments in space. The amount of detail to grasp up there is almost overwhelming, so developers have plenty of options and places to put a player in. One of the most potent questions players can ask during their play-through is “what’s that?” when traversing through a level. By seeing how this body looks and interacts in space, their interest has been piqued, and they’ll likely think about this experience more as they continue to play the game.
What have you learned about the space industry working in this particular game?
Wu: I learned that robots’ role in the space industry would become increasingly essential. As exemplified by “Spacing Out with R-Capek,” a particular sort of symbiotic relationship will need to develop with the advancement in technology and robotics/AI.
Martinez: I learned of the various methods spaceships use to acquire energy and the forms of energy they use to make space travel possible. While outlets on a spacecraft are not ideal for charging a robot, it does bring into perspective how useful it would be if a group of charging stations were set up around the ship to allow multiple robots to charge simultaneously.
Games can advance the broader conversation about the topics currently being discussed at the highest levels in space agencies, research organizations, and companies. Moreover, I suspect some of the most complex solutions to space debris can be derived from gaming. Some key takeaways and lessons I learned from the production and creation of “Spacing out with R-Capek” are:
1) Autonomous robots and AI technologies are critical for any serious spacefaring ambitions.
2) Online gaming is rising, and so is space debris. Regardless of budget, there’s always an opportunity to raise awareness and visibility through creative media. The solutions to a growing junkyard above Earth and beyond will need to be crowdsourced to the many bright minds.
3) Indie gamers, designers, writers, and creators bring unique skill sets and perspectives to space science and engineering. It is healthy to offer contrast to mainstream narratives about deep tech R&D.
4) Feedback and ideas are always welcome. Everything can always be streamlined and improved. So be sure to play and share it with others! We can find solutions to the toughest problems if we collaborate and incorporate our robotic partners.