Critical Update: Gaming the (Solar) System

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Advances in virtual reality and graphics processing have led NASA to partner with gamers on the path to preparing astronauts for a mission to Mars.

NASA’s goal to take human astronauts to Mars will require the agency to prepare for a whole new set of challenges that the astronauts and their Earth-bound teammates will have to face. But for those astronauts to train like they’re going to fly, NASA researchers will have to explore the best training options available.

Enter the Unreal Engine 5, a system developed by Epic Games that enables video game players to experience vastly complex environments using relatively low levels of processing power.

NASA teamed up with Epic Games—as well as crowdsourcing platform HeroX and virtual reality innovation company Buendea—to create the MarsXR challenge, an open call to the public to try their hand at creating realistic Martian virtual reality scenarios using the Unreal Engine.

Submissions for the competition—which offered $70,000 in awards across several different categories—were completed July 27. Winners will be announced Sept. 27.

Patrick Estep, a human performance engineer with the Human Physiology, Performance, Protections and Operations Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, joined Nextgov in July to discuss the training challenges inherent in a mission to Mars and the potential for video games to fill in some of the gaps. Here is an except of that conversation.