If you have an appetite for cosmic destruction, there’s now an app for that, developed by the venerable PBS science series NOVA.
NOVA Black Holes, a free iPad game, lets you hurl a star at other celestial objects while navigating an increasingly complex minefield of stars, planets and black holes. Each level presents a new target and a fresh landscape of obstacles. And unlike real stars — whose fates are determined by the weight they’re born with — your star grows bigger and brighter as the game progresses until it collapses under its own gravity to form a black hole. That’s the goal.
The game is addictive — there’s something surprisingly satisfying about blowing up a star. As it hooks you, the game sneaks in tidbits about astronomy and physics along the way.
Underlying the simple, attractive graphics is a simulator that captures the physics of gravity and orbital motion. Success requires thinking through the implications of how all the stars on the field interact and devising creative ways to use gravity to steer your star. (Aiming randomly and hoping for the best can work, too.)
Early levels are easy: Set the angle and speed of your star, then let it fly toward its mark. As the levels progress, so does the difficulty. A nearby black hole threatens to consume your target before your star gets there. The gravity from a passing star grabs your star and throws it off course (or possibly ushers it in the right direction). You must get the lay of the gravitational landscape and decide how to aim your star. Sometimes the right strategy is not intuitive: It might be best to swing around the back side of a neighboring star and get a gravity assist to send your star on its way.
Playing the game is simple, even if some missions are not. To aim, just touch your finger to your star and pull back, much like using a bow and arrow. Numbers showing the speed and angle help you refine your aim on the often inevitable next try. A grid shows how gravity warps the space near each star, helping you plot your trajectory.