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I am looking for a game that would be suitable for teaching basic orbital mechanics concepts to primary school students (grades 6-8). Contrary to most of the questions here asking about spaceflight simulators and such, I am not looking for super realistic representations of orbital mechanics. I want to allow students to tinker around with basic central force motion and see the ways in which conic sections are altered by thrust, etc. Seeing/enacting an example of rendezvous (maybe in a CW frame?) would be neat too.

I think Kerbal Space Program is going to be a common answer, and it is suitable, but unfortunately the fact that it is commercial makes it tougher to use in an educational setting. Extra points if there is something browser based, but my hopes aren't high for that.

EDIT: Wow, blown away by the variety and helpfulness of responses! Really love that this site exists. I can see why the question had a close vote for opinion based, as there are multiple answers here which in the absence of others could easily be accepted. In the interest of closing this out I am going with the wisdom of the crowd and accepting the top answer. And while I know that it's not the same as that sweet, sweet reputation, I am super thankful for all of the time people put in to giving helpful responses. Honorable mention to @Paul for a great hands-on method and @Steve for a really cool browser-based answer.

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    $\begingroup$ The close vote is not consistent with a different but related question which was very well received here: What are good ways to teach a 7 years old kid astronomy (and space flight)? has 12 up votes and three answers with a total of 13 more. A well written question asking for help finding carefully constrained, specific resources seems perfectly on-topic. The question does not ask "what do you think?" but instead some options that can then be considered by the OP. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Dec 12 '18 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ Hi ben, I think your question is fine. There is one close vote for opinion-based but clearly you are asking for resources, not opinions. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Dec 12 '18 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ Another soft question about education: How Do You Build a Rocket? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Dec 12 '18 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ Have you seen KerbalEdu? $\endgroup$ – Manuel J. Diaz Dec 12 '18 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ Could you edit your question to include the actual age range? I have no idea how old an eighth-grader is. My first guess would be 5 (school starting age) + 8. But that is 13 which is two years older than I would consider "primary". $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner Dec 12 '18 at 14:43

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I want to allow students to tinker around with basic central force motion and see the ways in which conic sections are altered by thrust, etc. Seeing/enacting an example of rendezvous (maybe in a CW frame?) would be neat too.

I definitely think Kerbal Space Program is the right answer here. The ways in which it departs from real-world space flight (such as a much smaller home planet, which leads to ascent to low orbit taking ~3 minutes instead of ~10 minutes) make sense for the classroom.

the fact that it is commercial makes it tougher to use in an educational setting.

The KerbalEDU version is offered with an educator discount.

The free option is Orbiter, which is more realistic in some ways than KSP, but less user friendly.

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    $\begingroup$ KerbalEDU also has some things that aren't present in the standard version of the game, like the Flight Recorder that lets you see graphs of what happened after a flight. $\endgroup$ – Skyler Dec 14 '18 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Had no idea about KerbalEDU! It's either well hidden or my search skills are lacking. With "funds" being a barrier in most educational environments the cheaper licensing is a big deal. $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:46
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Personally, I teach orbital mechanics classes to preschoolers, elementary and middle school kids using a makeshift trampoline with stretchable cloth clamped to the rim. Place a heavy weight (e.g. a dumbell) in the middle to simulate a large massive body like the earth or the sun. Use marbles to illustrate a spacecraft or planets. You can easily show the basic relation and variation in velocity as a function of distance in an orbit trajectory by rolling the marbles in elliptical, hyperbolic or (if you practice really hard) a parabolic trajectory. Giving the marbles a push while in “orbit” also shows how impulse thrusts affect the shape of the orbit too. More importantly, this demo helps give kids an intuition into einsteinian physics, where the presence of matter bends the space around it and is the reason why objects naturally follow curved paths in space instead of straight lines.

See this YouTube video for other ideas you can illustrate using this kind of demo

They can be easily constructed using PVC pipes and stretchable cloth fabrics. See these instructions for constructing your own gravity well. In my experience, the larger the well, the easier it is to demonstrate orbital mechanics.

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    $\begingroup$ In Singapore, they just teach the toddlers calculus. $\endgroup$ – Erik Dec 12 '18 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik: i’d love to learn how to do that! Do you have any links to calculus materials for toddlers? $\endgroup$ – Paul Dec 12 '18 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ I've heard trampolines are tough to insure against liability because Using a trampoline can be dangerous Oh, you don't put the students on the trampoline! Okay never mind. ;-) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Dec 12 '18 at 5:59
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh no you put them on the stretched tablecloth. Much safer. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Dec 12 '18 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Ben: No problem. I usually go with an analog game whenever possible. Kids get plenty of screen time anyways. $\endgroup$ – Paul Dec 15 '18 at 19:10
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UC Boulder has a project, PhET, that has many free, interactive, in-browser math and science modules. They have one called Gravity and Orbits that's written in HTML5, making it compatible with most modern browsers (including Safari on iPads). If you click the 'For Teachers' drop-down, you'll find it even has quite a few resources for lesson planning with it for middle schoolers.

I think this will suite your needs of it being appropriate for a class room and browser-friendly (and free!).

As a side note, if you want to tie Gravity and Orbits, or other software you end up choosing, to how the entire Solar System works, NASA has a great interactive site called Solar System. If you click the concentric circles on the menu bar, you can see the planets (and more) orbiting our Sun. You can also zoom in and out like if it was Google Maps. You can click a planet (or other object) to find out more information on it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Really like PhET and NASA's various visualization tools! Unfortunately these are not quite "featured" enough to get where I want, but they may well end up as auxiliary tools. Also the fact that PhET is browser-based is awesome. $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:49
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Spaceflight Simulator

An Android software, but it's possible to run it on a PC as well.

Spaceflight simulator screenshot

It's 2d, so it's much simpler to use than 3d software. There are some premium features ($4 unlocks all of them forever), but the free version is enough to launch missions to all the planets in the inner Solar System, and to put space stations in orbit and dock to them.

The learning curve for simple missions is very easy, the number of basic parts is very small. You can achieve orbit within a few minutes of having installed it.

It's much more simple than the Kerbal Space Program, but for the purposes presented in the question, that seems to be a big advantage.

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    $\begingroup$ Seems to be available on iOS too: itunes.apple.com/gb/app/spaceflight-simulator/id1308057272 $\endgroup$ – Robin Whittleton Dec 12 '18 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Definitely another good one, thanks! With the lack of ability to use on actual OSx it may or may not work (you might be surprised at how many macs grace classrooms these days). $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 19:10
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Probably too basic for what you want but Osmos (https://osmos-game.com/) has modes where the player is basically orbitting an attractor and has to change orbit to rendezvous with other objects in different orbits. This teaches the basic idea that you can't just thrust towards your target and expect to get there. Another mode involves multiple attractors orbitting a central one and the player has to set up a transfer orbit between them.

As I said this is probably too basic and is probably not very accurate but it may serve as an introduction to the idea that orbital mechanics work very differently to how you move around on the surface of a planet or even in the air. You might find it useful to let them play with this to learn that guessing isn't a great way to move in space and that a mathematical approach is not only better but basically essential.

There is a free demo but I don't know if that includes the modes which feature orbital mechanics type gameplay.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like it! While you're right that it's probably too simplistic for teaching, I think it will be a fun way to "apply what you've learned." Thanks! $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:59
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I think literally the first game ever created by Stephen R. Russell (I heard about it through a book on J. C. R. Licklider) was a game called SpaceWar.

The idea is to shoot your opponent whilst avoiding getting sucked falling into the gravitational void in the centre.

There's numerous emulators for it - for example https://www.masswerk.at/spacewar/

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Correction: not being sucked there. Just avoid collision with the void (in many versions, this is crashing into a planet). Gravity doesn't suck. Anyway, the game definitely teaches you some basics about orbital motion - but it's also a fast-paced real-time arcade game, so it can be hard to realize what's happening. You only see the current position of the ships, and the time frames are extremely short. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Dec 13 '18 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Luaan I changed it to 'fall' instead of suck. If you do nothing then you fall into the void, so it's not only a case of avoiding it. $\endgroup$ – icc97 Dec 14 '18 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ I spent wayyy too much time messing with this. Surprisingly addictive for a fairly simple game. This could certainly end up being an auxiliary resource (go use what you learned and establish space dominance, etc...). $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:51
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I can't believe no one's mentioned Orbiter 2010! Its a free game, similar to KSP, but without the building part, and with full-scale, n-body physics. There is a mod for it called Interplanetary which allows you to input your location, your destination, and the maximum time you have to get there, and it will tell you how much dV you need and give you a trajectory. It has a steep learning curve however.

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    $\begingroup$ It lacks the visualisation of orbital mechanics that makes them "easy" to understand in KSP $\endgroup$ – JCRM Dec 12 '18 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @JCRM If you go to cntr f1 or f2, you can turn on orbit trails. $\endgroup$ – qazwsx Dec 12 '18 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ Orbiter is great, but also extremely unfriendly (also, I've played the DOS Shuttle, which felt a lot better despite its age :D ). KSP's success is largely due to its hands-on attitude - you play around to discover stuff, and don't really have to read any documentation :) $\endgroup$ – Luaan Dec 13 '18 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ Orbiter was mentioned, but yeah definitely a nice free option! I think I'll have to figure out whether the steeper learning curve is worth not having to deal with licensing. $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:58
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While it does not seem to offer propulsive orbit changes, the TestTubeGames Gravity Simulator demonstrates orbital motion in a web interface.

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  • $\begingroup$ I used a slightly simpler little 2d game similar to this on a Mac Classic back in about 7th or 8th grade, and I was going to see if anyone reimplemented it, and I checked your suggestion. IMO this is the best / a great place to start with getting a mental feel for a subset of orbital issues! $\endgroup$ – X Goodrich Dec 14 '18 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ I can't believe this didn't get more upvotes! Granted there is no propulsive component, but damned if it isn't a good way to explore celestial mechanics. Thanks so much for a really solid resource (plus - browser based)! This will definitely find its way into a lesson. $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:53
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Here are two more fun ones which have not been mentioned before

  • Super Planet Crash : Browser based game where you add planets to a solar system.The aim of the game is to score as high as possible. Score points for bigger planets (which upset other orbits more), for more planets (which lead to more complex dynamics) and for making your solar system last longer (game ends when a planet is ejected from the solar system). http://www.stefanom.org/spc/

  • Chaotic Planets : Not really a game but more of a demo. Creates random systems of planets so you can see the dynamics play out. http://labs.minutelabs.io/Chaotic-Planets/

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  • $\begingroup$ I just got #1 on Super Planet Crash but can't figure out how to get a display of high scores. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Dec 13 '18 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ This is cool! Super Planet Crash reminds me of Gravity Simulator but with a scoring/competitive component, which students tend to like. Thanks for the input! Will definitely use these as some fun examples. $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:57
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In theory you could use KSpaceDuel https://www.kde.org/applications/games/kspaceduel/ for this purpose.

The power-potential of the spacecraft is way out of range for a typical rocket, but orbital transfers work the way they should until touching a screen edge.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is another fun one, like SpaceWar. Definitely going to waste some of my own time playing this. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – ben Dec 15 '18 at 18:55

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