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AMS Abstract: Learning Atmospheric Science with MPAS and Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a popular space-flight simulation video game that has been used to teach real-world physics and engineering skills to students across the U.S. As a sandbox game, KSP allows players to exercise their creativity to design and construct aircraft capable of atmospheric flight. While the game simulates atmospheres with variable depths and densities it lacks weather limiting its utility for atmospheric science education. To remedy this, the Model For Prediction Across Scales (MPAS) was used to simulate the climate of Kerbin, the home-world of the game’s main protagonists: the Kerbals. These simulations were facilitated by the fact that the composition of Kerbin’s atmosphere is identical to that of Earth’s.
In MPAS, terrain and biome data from KSP were used to classify land use, vegetation type, green fraction, leaf area index, soil type, and surface albedo. In addition to these land surface modifications, several changes to MPAS were made to facilitate a more realistic simulation of Kerbin’s atmosphere. These included changes to orbital parameters as Kerbin rotates once every six-hours and has zero obliquity. MPAS simulations were performed with and without these changes to examine how Kerbin’s unique orbital characteristics influence its climate.
MPAS simulations were spun-up over the course of one Kerbin year (2560 Earth hours), allowing the model to reach a steady-state. After the spin-up period, MPAS was run for an additional five Kerbin years. The model was run with 55 vertical levels and the upper boundary of the model was set to 70-km per the atmospheric boundary in KSP. To maintain numerical stability, a damping layer was used to prevent vertical and horizontal wind speeds from becoming unrealistically large near the model top. Atmospheric fields (e.g. temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.) were interpolated to a 1 x 1-degree rectangular grid. A five-year, hourly, climatology of Kerbin was produced by averaging this gridded weather data over time. Since the data is averaged by the hour, the climatology captures the diurnal cycle of weather on Kerbin. This hourly climatology has been incorporated into KSP through a C# plugin (mod) that will be made freely available on GitHub. A webpage has been made available to present the results of the MPAS simulations, outlined above, and provided updates on the development and release of the mod titled: Kerbal Weather Project.
The ultimate goal in developing and releasing this mod is to provide a potential tool for players and educators to learn about atmospheric in an interactive sandbox environment. With weather incorporated into the game, the potential is there for players to learn about concepts such as the layers of the atmosphere, the jet stream, diurnal temperature variations, sea breezes, etc. For example, players could create rocketsondes to sample the stratosphere and mesosphere or launch climate-monitoring satellites into polar orbit to emulate real-world science.